Gov. Newsom Signs Landmark Police Use-of-Force Bill Into Law

Come Jan. 1, 2020, California police will only be allowed to resort to deadly force if they have no other options. That’s the new standard set by Assemblywoman Shirley Weber’s AB 392, which Gov. Gavin Newsom enthusiastically signed into law earlier this week.

“As California goes, so goes the rest of the United States of America,” he declared with aplomb Monday at a televised presser in Sacramento. “And we are doing something today that stretches the boundaries of possibility and sends the message to people all across this country: that they can do more.”

Weber’s landmark accountability law raises the standard for justifiable force from “objectively reasonable” to “necessary.”

People who lost loved ones to police killings hailed the legislation as a life-saver.

Barbara Okamoto said her grandson Christopher Okamoto, who was fatally shot by a Bakersfield cop last year, might  be alive today had that officer abided by the standard set by AB 392. “It’s long overdue,” she said. “[An] officers’ gun is not their only option. They have many more options that they should use instead of taking someone’s life. They must stop killing our loved ones.”

San Jose’s cop union, however, contends that AB 392 changes nothing in practice.

“This bill that was signed into law does not change the Supreme Court standard,” San Jose Police Officers’ Association (POA) spokesman Tom Saggau told San Jose Inside. “The Supreme Court standard is what an ‘objectively reasonable’ officer in a similar situation would do.”

ACLU senior staff attorney Peter Bibring said that assessment misses the mark.

“That is technically true, but it's beside the point,” Bibring said. “Current California law essentially mirrors the Supreme Court. But this [bill] clearly imposes a higher standard.”

Ultimately, California courts will have to rule on an officer’s conduct leading up to his or her use of fatal force when the bill takes effect at the start of next year. And for Bibring, that’s a pretty significant change.

“Police unions have argued that you should only evaluate the moment the officer pulls the trigger,” Bibring explains.

By way of example, he cited a case in which two LA County sheriff deputies mistakenly shot the wrong suspect while searching for a parolee in 2010. During the pursuit, they kicked down the door of a shack in Lancaster to find Angel Martinez holding an airsoft gun. They shot him 14 times.

“[The police] argued that the court didn’t need to evaluate the fact that the officers didn’t identify themselves as police officers when they kicked the door down,” Bibring said. “Now, police will be held accountable if they fail to use reasonable and available tactics to de-escalate the situation, or if they unnecessarily escalated the situation—for example, by kicking the door down.”

Granted, earlier versions of AB 392 had more teeth.

But, acquiescing to the powerful police lobby, lawmakers removed explicit language that required cops to use strict de-escalation tactics. That’s because police groups rallied hard against the bill, prompting lawmakers to make enough amendments to appease them.

Weber spokesman Joe Kocurek said the compromise saved AB 392 from an otherwise certain demise. “Any of those things removed was done to preserve the core objective of this bill—to save lives,” he added.

And even though Weber continued to tout the law as the harbinger of sweeping changes for police agencies throughout the state, the cop lobby insists that it will only codify the current best practices of departments in Los Angeles, San Francisco and San Jose.

“These current standards emphasize de-escalation of volatile situations and a reverence for life,” San Jose POA President Sgt. Paul Kelly said.

The San Jose Police Department (SJPD) will be working with the City Attorney’s Office to review the new law and make changes if necessary. But SJPD spokesperson Officer Gina Tepoorten said the department has already changed many of its use-of-force policies over the last few years.

“We currently, and have for some time now, required de-escalation tactics in all aspects of our training, both at the police academy and in our continuous professional training,” she told San Jose Inside.

The new bill therefore may not be the landmark legislation that lawmakers had hoped for, but at the very least, it’s a signal to police departments that the public has them under watchful eye.

Meanwhile, a push for stricter force standards at the federal level is gaining traction.

Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Fremont) has introduced the PEACE Act—that is, the Police Exercising Absolute Care for Everyone Act—a proposal that builds upon California’s new lethal force law. According to the Silicon Valley congressman: “It is past time to end a legal standard for use of force that permits Americans to be killed as a first resort—rather than only when absolutely necessary—and with little accountability.”

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

4 Comments

  1. It’s sad to hear that SJPOA believes that it will still be able to shoot unarmed black IBM executives in the back, or an immigrant smoking in a “No Smoking Area”, or a … unarmed shoplifter, or a mentally ill teen holding a Black and Decker drill, or jumping out in front of a fleeing car shooting the passenger and then claiming self defense or going to a suicide call and killing the mentally ill man “to prevent him from killing himself or shooting a sleeping Halloween drunk in a stairwell and the list is to long for this reply section. They are still willing to do it their way and Rick Doyle is still willing to write Multi-Million dollar checks. The problem is the continuing extreme danger they place all officers across the country in from New York to Los Angeles. We have gone from 90% stable officers to about 50% and that is causing a revolution against authority and the bodies are stacking up.

    Jack Slade

  2. I suppose it’s time we put a lawyer in front of every cop to tell them when it’s OK to shoot.
    Better yet a politician.

    • Anything might help, because more and more, it seems that cops aren’t able to make those decisions on their own anymore.

      Another option is the Barney Strategy. Give each cop just one bullet, which has to be carried in their pocket. Gives them time to think before committing an action which will cause resident taxpayers to cough up even more money for those wrongful death lawsuits.

  3. > San Jose’s cop union, however, contends that AB 392 changes nothing in practice.

    . . . .

    > ACLU senior staff attorney Peter Bibring said that assessment misses the mark.

    “That is technically true, but it’s beside the point,” Bibring said. “Current California law essentially mirrors the Supreme Court. But this [bill] clearly imposes a higher standard.”

    . . . .

    This sounds to me like gobbledy-gook on steroids. With an extra helping of gobbledy.

    I have no idea what the real significance of this change is. My suspicion is that it is mostly “display behavior”, with Gavin Newson and the rest of the progressive gaggle just strutting and preening for the boob-ocracy and telling them “we care and we’re doing SOMETHING”.

    Sound and fury signifying nothing.

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