New State Law Rewrites the Rules for Police Use of Force—But Not Much Changes for SJPD

Come Jan. 1, 2021, every police department in California must enact stricter guidelines for using deadly force. They must rewrite the training manuals to require officers to resort to fatal force only when “necessary,” as opposed to when “objectively reasonable,” and based on the totality of circumstances. They must place more emphasis on de-escalation tactics. Finally, they must also train officers how to better interact with physically and mentally disabled people.

SB 230 was initially manufactured by the law enforcement lobby as a way to knock the teeth out of AB 392, Assemblywoman Shirley Weber’s “Stephon Clark Law” that sought to change police standards for fatal force—some of which had remained unchanged for a century. But the version of SB 230 that Gov. Gavin Newsom signed into statute last week had since been amended to complement Weber’s reform bill.

While AB 392 elevates the standard for when an officer can resort to deadly force, SB 230 requires departments overhaul training manuals to reflect the new threshold.

State Sen. Anna Caballero (D-Salinas) says the new law will rebuild the public’s trust with police departments. “SB 230 makes fundamental changes to how law enforcement officers interact with the public and the tactics that they use to get cooperation,” she said in a statement to reporters. “This culture shift will pave the way to restoring the public trust and mutual respect that is so desperately needed.”

For communities of color, however—including many families in San Jose who lost loved ones to police shootings—there will no doubt be a longer road to healing. While the passage of SB 230 was hailed as a milestone by many, the fraught negotiations that preceded it did little to build bridges with some members of those families who saw the bill as an existential threat to meaningful accountability.

“I wouldn't even like to see this bill [SB 230] at all,” says Rosie Chavez, whose nephew Jacob Dominguez was shot by San Jose police in 2017. “It was just to counteract AB 392.”

When Weber introduced AB 392, police unions feared a provision that would have held officers criminally liable for using deadly force unless the situation absolutely called for it. To thwart a bill whose original iteration would have made it easier to prosecute police for the kinds of killings that took the lives of Clark and Dominguez, the law enforcement lobby put its weight behind SB 230 introduced by state Sen. Anna Caballero (D-Salinas). Concurrently, police unions put the heat on lawmakers to amend AB 392.

The gambit worked. Weber’s bill got watered down to the point that some of its loudest champions, including Silicon Valley De-Bug, turned their support into vocal opposition.

Leaders of the San Jose Police Officers’ Association (POA) shrugged off the criticism, saying SB 230 would go a long way toward addressing the root causes of officer-involved shootings: homelessness and the mental health crisis. They accused civil rights groups of downplaying those issues in the interest of trying to put more officers behind bars.

Accountability activists lost the provision in AB 392 that police feared most. Under the version that passed, prosecution of police officers will remain largely at the discretion of local district attorneys. But with help from the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), reformers at least applied enough pressure to rework SB 230 from a competing measure into a compromise.

“There were repeated references to ‘reasonable force’ in SB 230” that reformers took issue with, ACLU senior attorney Peter Bibring explains, “and under AB 392, ‘reasonable force’ isn’t always the standard.” He says the ACLU was alarmed, for example, that the initial version of SB 230 protected a law dating back to the Wild West days of 1872 that allowed officers to open fire on escaped felons. Under the revised version, police can only resort to deadly force in that situation if the fleeing inmate poses an immediate danger.

In letters of opposition sent to lawmakers about that particular language in SB 230, the ACLU cautioned that it would endanger “officers and non-officers alike by expanding the already broad discretion police officers hold to kill members of the public.” Further, the organization wrote: “While the bill has been promoted as strengthening policy and training standards, it does neither.”

Both sides of the aisle acquiesced to a degree, and even Weber ultimately gave her blessing to SB 230. Though ACLU still formally opposes the bill, Bibring says the disagreement stems from “a few technical details.” But it’s better than nothing, he says.

“The early form of the bill didn't set a clear minimum guideline” for de-escalation and use-of-force, Bibring says. Yet the amended version has stringent standards, he notes.

“A minimum guideline is a good thing,” he concedes. “In particular, the clear requirement that officers engage in de-escalation, report and intervene other officers, and that they provide medical aid—those are all best practices that aren't in effect in every jurisdiction in California.”

But Chavez says neither SB 230 nor AB 392 will spell any changes for the San Jose Police Department. On that point, SJPD concurs.

“Based on preliminary review, most of our policy and training procedures are already in compliance with [SB 230],” Lt. Stanley McFadden said in a statement to San Jose Inside. “We had an instructor-led debate on the use-of-force on mental health patients and people experiencing a medical emergency that may be violent but not criminal. The need to utilize de-escalation tactics was emphasized during those discussions.”

Officers have also received updated training on using less-than lethal weapons like chemical agents and tasers, McFadden says; every officer is also required to carry a non-lethal stun gun. SJPD has also implemented training for officers to use physical restraint as a method of de-escalation.

For academy recruits, SJPD has already added 24 hours of scenario-based training with emphasis on de-escalation, according to McFadden. It has added an extra four hours of class to teach recruits how to manage their personal emotions so they can effectively defuse tense situations. “For the first time in defensive tactics,” he says. “We also have incorporated escape routes as a means of de-escalating a situation and avoiding harm to the officer and the person involved.”

The reaction to SB 230’s passage largely mirrors that of AB 392’s. That is, backers of both bills herald each as a momentous steps towards better policing in California. But SJPD also acknowledges that neither will lead to any substantive changes on the ground.

Nicholas Chan is a journalist who covers politics, culture and current events in Silicon Valley. Follow him on Twitter at @nicholaschanhk.

2 Comments

  1. Sorry, Senator Caballero, but the law abiding public already trusts cops. It’s the criminals, their friends and families who make excuses for their lawless behavior, and people in the US illegally who don’t trust cops; and no amount of snowflake legislation will “restore” what was never there. Expecting cops to become social workers and mental health professionals to deal with whack jobs and drug addled idiots is ridiculous. Watch Chris Rock’s educational and humorous You Tube on “How to avoid getting your ass kicked by the POlice” for tips on how not to get shot, as well.

  2. Here’s my favorite quote from this article…“For the first time in defensive tactics,” he says. “We also have incorporated escape routes as a means of de-escalating a situation”…Escape routes? So, the officers will now be trained to keep an exit pointin view so they can run away and call the police? Marvelous. This law supposes to stop something that was never occurring in the first place. Arm the citizens. They are on their own. Call the police when the suspect is down and the police can determine whether or not it was self-defense, nothing more.

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