Can a New Law Curb Police Shootings? Lawmakers Plan to Put That Question to the Test

Jamilia Land walked out of a meeting in the state Capitol feeling optimistic that 2019 may be the year California changes the law to try to reduce the number of people killed by police. It’s personal for her. Land is a family friend of Stephon Clark, the unarmed man Sacramento police shot dead last year in his grandmother’s backyard. Officers thought he was holding a gun, but it turned out to be a cell phone.

Clark’s killing set off protests nationwide and spurred a highly controversial bill in the state Capitol that would have set a tougher legal standard to justify police shootings. After months of intense lobbying by police groups opposed to the bill, the Senate leader shelved it over the summer—but promised to help deliver a new version this year.

“I think that for the first time in a long time in the state of California, we’re actually going to see an effective legislative change,” Land said last week after meeting with a lawmaker and other advocates for a bill to create stronger police accountability. “Our political climate is now one where we are having sweeping criminal justice reform and one of the last things to really talk about is police murder and the use of deadly force.”

Exactly how the legislation will attempt to reduce killings is not clear; a bill has not yet been introduced. But Assemblywoman Shirley Weber—the San Diego Democrat who carried last year’s stalled bill—is working on it. Civil rights advocates and law enforcement lobbyists have been negotiating behind the scenes with key legislative aides for months, and the legislation is expected to take shape soon.

When it does, it’s nearly certain to raise a serious debate in the state Capitol over one of America’s most enduring problems—the often toxic relationship between black and brown communities, where the quality of life for law-abiding residents is often undercut by high poverty and crime rates, and police who are sworn to protect and serve, but who sometimes can err—lethally.

Both sides are influential in the Democrat-dominated state Capitol. And both sides acknowledge a need to improve trust and safety. But their visions for how to do it vary greatly. “The police and the communities, we’ve got to come together and make sure that trust is there,” said Ronald Lawrence, CP of the California Police Chiefs Association.

In his view, many shootings could be avoided if people simply obeyed police commands: “The compliance with lawful orders will prevent a lot of use-of-force. It will prevent a lot of tragedies, frankly.”

Police also want more money for training officers and more access to psychiatric specialists and homeless services to handle calls for people who need help, but not necessarily from the cops.

Activists and civil rights advocates say trust will come when police are held accountable for killing. Making it easier to prosecute police, they say, will ultimately reduce unnecessary deaths. One reason officers are so rarely prosecuted is that the legal standard justifies using deadly force when a “reasonable officer” would do the same thing in the split-second before firing. Last year’s controversial bill would have changed the legal standard in California to justify shooting only when “necessary,” meaning only when other tactics, such as warnings or de-escalation, were not possible instead.

“Our law is way too permissive. It gives very broad discretion to use force to kill people regardless of what other options (an officer) had,” said Lizzie Buchen, a lobbyist for the American Civil Liberties Union, which is behind the effort to craft a new law.

“There’s a pretty overwhelming perception by the public that police operate with impunity and that they can kill people without being held accountable.”

Police counter that they themselves are often targets of violence and say they need legal protection to perform a dangerous job. They chafe at the idea of a law making it harder for them to shoot, saying it would make them more vulnerable to being killed.

“Ninety-nine percent of the time officers are reacting to the way someone is approaching them. To sit here and say if I roll up on a scene that I have to use a Taser, a night stick, and go hands-on before I can use deadly force, you’re jeopardizing public safety,” said Brian Marvel, president of the Peace Officers Research Association of California, which represents 70,000 officers.

“We have all these tools on our belt and depending on what we’re facing and how violent the person is toward us will determine what force we use.”

The debate took on more urgency this week as Attorney General Xavier Becerra released his office’s first review of the Sacramento Police Department since Clark’s killing. The 97-page report urges the department to overhaul its use of force policies, recommending that it expand use of de-escalation tactics (such as verbal warnings or persuasion), emphasize “the sanctity of human life” and better define and explain that force should be used “only when necessary.”

Asked if he thinks the law should require police statewide to adopt such policies, Becerra stopped short of endorsing new legislation, saying “the more it’s hard and fast in statute or ordinance, the better off you are. This is clearly a road map … to get there.”

Buchen, the ACLU lobbyist, noted that many of Becerra’s recommendations call for policies that were included in the bill that stalled last year. She expects the report will influence discussions in the Capitol over a new version of the bill.

“This is so similar to what we were trying to do last year,” Buchen said. “It’s more affirmation that we’re on the right course.”

Senate leader Toni Atkins, who shelved the bill last year, responded to Becerra’s report by saying she’s working on new legislation with two guiding principles in mind: recognizing the danger and difficulty of police work, while acknowledging that police shootings “disproportionately affect communities of color.”

“We do have a problem in this country and in this state,” Atkins said. “So we’ve got to make sure we get something done on this issue.”

CALmatters.org is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media venture explaining California policies and politics.

11 Comments

  1. It is time for the law to change. While there are some good officers in every department, there are also those who engage in having sexual relationship with minors, protecting sexual and domestic violence aggressors, and those that feel their badge give them permission to misuse the law and kill.

  2. “The Sanctity of Life”, all this noise from the same people that have passed laws requiring medical personnel, and Nuns to perform late term abortion on demand! Perhaps if cops just “resuscitate the bad guys and make them comfortable until we have a discussion with their mothers”.

    We already have sanctuary laws to protect criminals from murder to impersonating the tooth fairy. I guess we now need them to protect the rest of the insane and dangerous class of people that cycle through system. Of course I can already hear the howls and cries after the next mass shooting. “The cops were right there doing nothing while this kid shot fifteen of his innocent school mates with an AK357, a weapon of war made just for killing people”. It had a one hundred round clip and a folding stock magazine. Why can’t we just go door to door confiscate all these guns from white supremacist’s and people with MAGA hats!

    Maybe the cops will stop shooting people when people stop shooting them.

  3. Everyone should be required to watch the video by Chris Rock on how to avoid getting your ass kicked by the POlice. It sets forth good advice from a black man.

  4. What an unwinnable situation for our police. You could not pay me enough to do a job where the media and radical groups blow up numbers at the expense of cops safety. Bad behavior equals bad results in a majority of these deaths. Which a good number are also the mentally ill which cops are not prepared to deal with. Its funny we dont see these types of enough is enough protests in Chicago, Baltimore, Detroit etc…. Yup the media is driven by the few. Meanwhile the rest of society is victimized daily by criminals who will go unchecked due to fear by cops of a bad outcome. Its a mad mad mad world

    • Some cops are also mentally ill and never treated. How can tgey work with the mentally ill if they are mentally ill themselves?

      • > Some cops are also mentally ill and never treated.

        Yes. And?

        Some voters are mentally ill and never treated.

        Some politicians are mentally ill and never treated.

        Some SJI bloggers are mentally ill and never treated.

        I don’t have an answer.

  5. This law presupposes and reinforces the anti-police narrative that exists only in brains, possibly drug-addled, of some anti-police activists who apparently believe that cops are somehow going around shooting people just for the hell of it, just because, somehow, they can, as if there was no review process after every event. (Investigations by the agency Internal Affairs; District Attorneys Office; State and/or Federal Department of Justice; FBI (Civil Rights Division); Grand jury, both Federal and State; Criminal Jury trials, both State and potentially two Federal Trials, one for criminal, a second (yes, double jeopardy but allowed by law) for Civil Rights violation) ,as well as, Civil Court trials, and most likely some sort of Civilian Review process or (laughably) “Independent” police auditor, not to mention the storming of City Hall by an angry mob with torches and pitch forks.

    The police have no greater right to defend themselves than does the average citizen. A police officer, just like an average citizen, can only use deadly force if there is a reasonable fear of death or great bodily injury to the officer or some other individual. The only difference is that cops are allowed to use deadly force to effect the capture or prevent the escape of a violent felon whose escape or remaining at large would reasonably endanger the public safety, and then only if all other reasonable means of capture have failed (Tennessee v. Garner). When a suspect is attacking, the only reasonable means of defending oneself is with immediate reaction. The suspect’s attack takes away a person’s ability to exhaust any other reasonable means.

    Do cops make mistakes? Certainly, but police work, arguably more than any other occupation, is one that defies perfection. People complain about the “reasonable officer” standard? Cops are sent into unpredictable, violent situations, not of their own choosing, where specialized training and experience must be applied and these factors must be known and understood before any reasonable and fair judgement of an officer’s actions can be made. Consider: What if you were watching a surgeon performing open heart surgery and suddenly the patient goes into cardiac arrest and dies. Would you, as a laymen, be able to tell what, if anything, the surgeon may have done wrong? I couldn’t. However, my guess is that another doctor, familiar with the procedure and the patient’s medical history, would be able to tell if the doctor had acted reasonably and did everything he reasonably could have done or not. Even so, the doctor passing judgement would probably also have to be a surgeon who has performed dozens of similar operations and who knows the risks. I doubt the opinion of a dermatologist would come to as reasonably fair a conclusion.

    This law is itself unreasonable because it makes no allowance for, nor does it require the recording of, the number of times officers are able to diffuse a situation and DON”T have to resort to deadly force even though they might otherwise have been justified in doing so. It doesn’t require the disclosing of a suspect’s history of violence, particularly toward the police, or his drug intoxication level, or his mental health issues, etc.

    This is just another case of rules being made by people who don’t play the game and there is nothing more terrifying than ignorance in action.

    • Well Said Mr. Robillard,
      The hard part comes after a suspect has fled and then finds himself cornered, it’s dark and instead of out right surrendering pulls out his cellphone or a knife or just makes a sudden aggressive move. Bang your dead.
      About two or three officers a week are killed in that situation, by people with real weapons and bad wishes.
      Cops make mistakes, don’t help make them a bad one by doing something stupid.

    • But… how else can politicians make promises to get elected? How will newspapers get sold without sensational misdirections? The sky is falling! Cops shooting unarmed minorities EVERYWHERE!

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