Newsom Signs Use-of-Force Reform Into Law in California

(AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli)

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (CN) – Calling for a transformation in a state where officers fatally shot more than 120 people in each of the last three years, California Gov. Gavin Newsom signed legislation Monday that requires officers to avoid deadly force and only shoot when “necessary.”

Newsom and the bill’s Democratic authors called the legislation a much needed update to the country’s oldest unamended use-of-force statute and a model for other states to follow.

“I think people all across the country are grateful to you,” Newsom said, referring to the bill’s author during a signing ceremony in Sacramento. “Because as California goes, so goes the rest of the United States of America.”

The bill by Assemblymember Shirley Weber, D-San Diego, raises the bar for using deadly force from “reasonable” to “necessary” and calls for officers to shoot only when there is an imminent deadly threat. Assembly Bill 392 requires officers to consider nonlethal alternatives and narrows the definition of imminent harm to one that “must be instantly confronted.”

Weber says her bill, which was largely inspired by the 2018 shooting of Stephon Clark and was modeled after standards enacted at the local level in San Francisco and Seattle, affirms the “sanctity of human life.”

“Far too many days have gone by with far too many deaths because of the inaction of those who have the power to enact change,” Weber said. “When we look around us today, what we see here is a whole lot of people and a lot of communities with power ready for change.”

Weber revived her bill after a similar measure stalled last year due to heavy opposition from law enforcement groups. But the sides reached a compromise in May to remove language that would have held officers criminally liable for breaking the standard, and the Legislature cleared it with bipartisan support in July.

As they did earlier this summer during legislative hearings, the families of people killed by police lined the audience and chanted victims’ names.

The bill’s main sponsor, the American Civil Liberties Union, made AB 392 its highest lobbying priority and helped coordinate rallies in favor of the bill. It claims by the time the bill takes effect Jan. 1, California will have gone from having one of the “most lax use of force laws in the country, to one of the strongest.”

The long list of other supporters included the California Conference of the NAACP, Courage Campaign, League of Women Voters and a host of labor unions. Most of the state’s largest law enforcement groups went neutral on the bill, while Black Lives Matter pulled its support in opposition to the May amendments that it claimed went soft on law enforcement.

Along with tightening the deadly force standard, enacted in 1872, AB 392 makes California the only state to require courts and other decision-makers to consider an officer’s conduct leading up to a use of deadly force when determining whether the officer’s actions were justified.

Data compiled by CalMatters ranks California 18th in rate of deadly police shootings overall, but the highest rate of any state with a population over 8 million. California police fatally shot 427 people between 2016 and 2018, according to state data.

“AB 392 authorizes the use of deadly force when a reasonable officer on the scene would believe, based on the facts and circumstances known to the officer, that the subject appears to have the ability, opportunity, and intention to kill or cause serious bodily injury to an officer or another person, and the use of deadly force is necessary to address that threat,” the ACLU wrote in support of Weber’s bill. “This definition draws upon best practices within policing, but has been incorporated by no other state in the country into statutory law.”

The Legislature is considering a companion bill supported by law enforcement which would require agencies to meet a new state-mandated training standard. Agencies would have to adopt policies that focus on de-escalation techniques, crisis intervention and an additional requirement that forces officers to report when they witness cases of excessive force.

The California Association of Highway Patrolmen said the two bills will “serve as an example” for other states considering whether to modernize their use-of-force standard and training techniques.

Monday’s signing ceremony caps another hard-fought legislative battle between Weber and the state’s law enforcement agencies. Weber, born to Arkansas sharecroppers and a former professor, previously sponsored reforms to the state’s gang database and an anti-racial profiling measure that forced law enforcement agencies to start compiling demographic data from police stops.

“This is a great day, so we should all be celebrating,” Weber said. “We’ve gone a long way in California, and in this nation.”

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