Use-of-Force Restrictions Advance in California

In this Thursday, March 22, 2018, photo, a young man joins others at a demonstration outside the Sacramento City Hall to protest the shooting of Stephon Alonzo Clark, by a pair of Sacramento Police officers. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli)

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (CN) – Pressed to act after another year marred by dozens of cases involving police officers shooting and killing people of color, California lawmakers on Tuesday advanced reforms that would limit officers’ ability to use deadly force. 

Born in the aftermath of the 2018 police killing of Sacramento resident Stephon Clark, Assembly Bill 392 calls for changes to California’s nearly 150-year-old standard authorizing officers to shoot before considering all nonlethal alternatives when pursuing someone they believe is a felon. The proposal could also open officers up to lawsuits and criminal charges by giving prosecutors and jurors greater ability to scrutinize circumstances leading up to a police shooting. 

Assemblywoman Shirley Weber says her bill is a “long overdue” update to the oldest use-of-force statute in the country.

“Current law results in officers killing civilians far more often than is necessary, leaving many families and communities devastated and the general public less safe,” Weber, D-San Diego, told the Assembly Public Safety Committee. “These tragedies disproportionately impact communities of color; studies show police kill unarmed, young black men at more than 20 times the rate they kill young white men.”

Weber’s proposal has set the table for another fight between civil rights groups and the law enforcement lobby after a similar proposal by Weber stalled in the state Senate last year.

Supporters, including the American Civil Liberties Union and a host of state Democrats, hope to update California’s 1872 “fleeing felon rule” which law allows officers to use deadly force if a “reasonable officer” in a similar situation would do the same. AB 392 moves the bar from “reasonable” to “necessary.”

Weber and co-author Assemblyman Kevin McCarty hope the switch will eventually become the nationwide standard. They’ve modeled the legislation after tightened use-of-force standards recently implemented by police departments in Seattle and San Francisco, which the lawmakers claim have improved relations between residents and law enforcement.

McCarty, D-Sacramento, detailed several recent police killings including the Clark incident, which happened about 10 miles south of the state Capitol.

Last month, veteran Sacramento District Attorney Ann Marie Schubert declined to charge two officers who shot the unarmed Clark in his grandparents’ backyard after mistaking his cellphone for a gun. 

“When we look at the facts and the law, and we follow our ethical responsibilities, the answer to that question is no,” Schubert concluded.

McCarty brought up the taxpayer impact of police killings, noting cities spend millions fighting wrongful death lawsuits. Sacramento was sued by Clark’s family for $20 million in federal court while Los Angeles has spent over $100 million over the last 15 years on wrongful death settlements, McCarty said.

“This shows we need to re-evaluate the book,” McCarty testified.

Unsurprisingly, California law enforcement groups have joined forces to freeze the Democrats’ bill. They believe the measure will give criminals “carte blanche” to ignore commands and could lead to more officers being killed. 

Shane LaVigne, lobbyist for the California Fraternal Order of Police, believes AB 392 would cause officers to hesitate during dangerous situations knowing that their actions will be examined by jurists “in hindsight.” He called AB 392 an “impossible standard” that will make it hard for agencies to recruit new and qualified officers.

“Officers will not want to do this job knowing that when they get called into a situation to make a life-or-death situation, they will be prosecuted, civil action taken against their department and their entire career savaged by the press; they will simply walk away,” LaVigne said. 

A Sacramento County Sheriff’s officer backed up LaVigne’s claims, telling the committee that she may have acted differently if AB 392 was law during a shootout last year that resulted in her partner’s death.

“This bill would tie our hands behind our backs,” said Deputy Julie Robertson. “How am I able to protect and serve the community knowing that I would be criminalized and demonized for my selfless actions?”

After three hours of debate that featured testimony from several people whose family members were killed by police, the committee voted 5-2 along party lines to advance AB 392 to the Assembly Rules Committee.

While Weber’s bill was defeated last year, new Gov. Gavin Newsom and other top Democrats are pushing for the sides to agree on use-of-force reforms. Newsom is orchestrating meetings with Weber and law enforcement groups and has said he supports “systemic” police training reforms.

Law enforcement representatives said Tuesday that they are open to further discussions on Weber’s bill, but are backing an opposing bill by state Sen. Anna Caballero, D-Salinas. 

The alternative, Senate Bill 230, proposes more funding for statewide de-escalation training but keeps the state’s current lethal force standard. Caballero says SB 230, which hasn’t been taken up by the Senate, will require every police department to undergo extensive new training. 

Critics say SB 230 is too vague and doesn’t go far enough to make a real impact.

Weber ended Tuesday’s hearing by refuting the opponents’ claims that officers will be “lined up and prosecuted,” and said it was time for “change to come to California.”

“What it has done in Seattle and what it is doing in San Francisco has made those communities safer. It’s made officers safer and made our communities safer,” Weber said.

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