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To reduce the use of force by California police, two Democrats began with competing approaches.

Assemblywoman Shirley Weber, a firebrand from a liberal San Diego district, aimed to crack down by setting a tougher standard for justifiable police shootings.

Sen. Anna Caballero, a centrist who flipped a red Central Valley district blue, introduced a police-backed vision to reduce deadly force through improved officer training.

Yet as mothers—one African American, the other Latina—both lawmakers have had remarkably similar experiences in one respect: They instructed their teenage sons to cautiously navigate encounters with police, and they ultimately felt the police did not treat their sons fairly.

“It’s a difficult conversation to have,” Caballero said in an interview for Force of Law, a CALmatters podcast following California’s effort this year to reduce police shootings.

“As a woman of color you have to tell your boys … ‘I don’t care what’s going on … You’re going to follow the instructions, and you’re going to do exactly what they say, because they’re not going to know you, and they’re going to see you as a Mexican kid.’”

In the same episode, Weber recalls her son being stopped by police on the campus of San Diego State University, where she was a professor of Africana studies.

“They would go through his car, sit him on the curb,… and then they’d eventually go to the glove compartment and realize, ‘Oh, this truck is registered to Shirley Weber,’” she said. “And immediately, everybody would get nervous, because they knew I was going to call the police … for the campus and say, ‘Why are you still stopping my son, when you haven’t stopped anybody else? He wasn’t driving fast. He didn’t run a light. He was just coming out of the gym exercising, and you stop him.’”

Weber’s bill, now advancing through the Legislature, would declare that police use of force is allowed only when “necessary in defense of human life.” That’s a steeper standard than prosecutors apply now, which says police can shoot when doing so is “reasonable.”

That bill initially faced fierce police opposition, and has been amended into a compromise between law enforcement and civil rights advocates. The American Civil Liberties Union still champions the bill; Black Lives Matter withdrew its support; and police groups shifted from fighting it to being “neutral.”

Now it has become a companion to Caballero’s police-sponsored bill, which would require all law enforcement departments in California to adopt policies stating that officers must carry out their duties, including the use of force, “in a manner that is fair and unbiased.” It also would require basic officer training to include lessons on cultural competency and overcoming bias.

California lawmakers have been wrestling with how to respond following the death of Stephon Clark, a black man who was unarmed when Sacramento Police shot him in his grandparents’ backyard, mistaking the cell phone he was holding for a gun.

But the issue is much broader than one incident: The debate in the Capitol reflects growing concern about the disproportionate toll police shootings take on people of color. In California, 63 percent of the people killed in 2017 were African American or Latino, according to the state Department of Justice. Together, those two groups make up 46 percent of the state’s population.

Nor are Weber and Caballero the only politicians who have shared how profoundly personal the issue is for them. The debate has prompted anguished lawmakers to speak about their own encounters with police or their experiences as former officers, their fears about the safety of their relatives who wear a badge or their worries that their loved ones could be victimized by someone wearing a badge.

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

Published in Politics

For an hour and a half Wednesday morning, May 29, California lawmakers lined up to speak for or against—mostly for—one of the most high-profile bills of the year. One member of the Assembly, a former state cop, choked back tears as he wrestled with the implications of his vote.

But when the rolls opened on Assembly Bill 392, which would make it harder for police to legally justify killing a civilian, the tally wasn’t even close: The Assembly passed the bill, 68-0, with 12 members abstaining.

Wednesday’s vote pushes California one step closer to enacting use-of-force standards that would be among the strictest in the country. If AB 392 is signed into law, police would only be able to use lethal force if “necessary” to defend human life.

The current standard, established by the U.S. Supreme Court, allows the lethal use of force if the split-second decision to pull the trigger is “reasonable.”

Introduced by Assemblywoman Shirley Weber from San Diego, the bill is a product of a long political tug-o’-war. On one side are criminal-justice advocates, including the American Civil Liberties Union, which has argued that current law allows police officers to justify all but the most flagrant misconduct. On the other are law-enforcement groups, which have said that a stricter use-of-force standard would allow prosecutors to second-guess difficult policing decisions in often-dangerous situations.

But most of the state’s major law enforcement groups are no longer actively opposing the bill, the result of an amendment last week. An earlier version of the bill defined “necessary” use of force as lacking any “reasonable alternative,” but that phrasing was stripped. Police groups argued that the “no reasonable alternative” would give prosecutors too much leeway to question every decision after the fact.

At a press conference after the vote, Weber insisted that the amendments had not substantially weakened the bill’s civil-liberty safeguards. But the change seems to have helped clear the way for Wednesday’s vote among officials ordinarily allied with law enforcement, with most moderate Democrats and 9 of the chamber’s 19 Republicans voting in favor.

“In my entire elected experience, never has a bill consumed my thinking as this has,” said Assemblyman Tom Lackey, a Republican and former California Highway Patrol officer who paused a number of times throughout his speech to collect himself.

He recalled a former colleague, “someone who was a very big part of my life,” who had killed someone while in the line of duty—and, struggling with the guilt, later took his own life. But Lackey said that he would support the bill, because, he argued, it offered a balanced approach.

Jim Gallagher, a Republican from Yuba City, also spoke in favor of the bill, saying that with the new amendments, it represents a “reasonable compromise.”

Devon Mathis, a Republican from Visalia, was initially the only Republican to vote “no” before switching his vote to an abstention. He argued that a lack of respect for police officers was the source of many civilian killings.

“We teach our youth ‘no means no,'” he said. “But when are we going to teach them, ‘stop means stop,’ ‘freeze means freeze’?”

That argument prompted a fierce response from Assemblyman Mike Gipson, a Democrat from Compton.

“I listen to all of you with your commentaries and words, but you don’t have to have my kind of experience,” said Gipson, who is African American, his voice reverberating around the chamber. “You don’t live where I live or grow up where I grew up.”

Weber, also an African American, said that the bill was part of a “400-year challenge” for racial justice in the United States. She closed by dedicating the bill to her two grandchildren. When the vote was called, criminal-justice advocates stood in the balcony and sang “This Land is Your Land.”

The bill now progresses to the Senate, where a similar version of the proposal died in committee last year. But this time around, the bill has the public support of the Democratic President Pro Tem Toni Atkins of San Diego, who stood beside Weber at Wednesday’s press conference.

Earlier this week, the state Senate passed a police-backed “companion” bill unanimously. The proposal by Democratic Sen. Anna Caballero from Salinas would provide more use-of-force training to police.

Learn more about these two bills and about the legal, political and human dimensions of this debate by subscribing to Laurel Rosenhall’s podcast, Force of Law. CALmatters.org is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media venture explaining California policies and politics.

Published in Politics

Even as a landmark California bill meant to prevent police shootings passed through its first committee on Tuesday, April 9, fault lines among Democrats began to emerge—suggesting the measure will likely change as it moves through the Legislature.

How much it will change, though, was not yet clear.

After emotional, standing-room-only testimony from Californians whose loved ones have been killed by police, and a sheriff’s deputy who survived being shot by a gunman who killed her colleague, the Assembly Public Safety committee passed Assembly Bill 392 on a party-line vote. But three of the panel’s six Democrats said they were dissatisfied with the bill in its current form. They asked civil-rights groups that support the bill and law-enforcement groups that oppose it to keep working toward common ground.

“It is incumbent upon each of us to look at the safety of the public, both law enforcement and the community members that are out on the streets every day,” said Assemblywoman Rebecca Bauer-Kahan, a Democrat from Orinda.

“The pendulum has swung too far in one direction such that we aren’t protecting and holding accountable those who are taking life from our community members. I do have serious concerns that the text of this (bill) swings the pendulum too far in the other direction, because the sanctity of the life of our law enforcement is equally as important.”

Assemblywoman Shirley Weber said she would work to reach a compromise before the bill reaches the Assembly floor.

“We are committed to having a piece of legislation that makes a difference and that does provide a balance,” said the San Diego Democrat whose bill would change the legal standard for justifying police use of deadly force.

Her bill—which is backed by the American Civil Liberties Union and numerous civil-rights groups—was prompted by the death last year of Stephon Clark. He was not armed, and Sacramento police killed him after mistaking the cellphone he was holding for a gun. Last month, the Sacramento district attorney announced she would not press charges, because the officers acted legally.

Clark’s case has re-ignited anger among many, with evidence that black and brown men are unfairly targeted by police—a message that was carried into the Capitol by scores of Californians who packed the hearing room and spilled out into the hallway, wearing T-shirts commemorating slain loved ones, or emblazoned with the hashtag #LetUsLive.

Weber’s bill would make sweeping changes to the laws that determine when California police can use deadly force. It says police could shoot only when it’s necessary to prevent death or serious injury, and would require they use other tactics in many situations.

That would go beyond the standard set by the U.S. Supreme Court, which says police can use force when a reasonable officer in the same circumstance would do the same thing. Law-enforcement groups said that a law that deviates from the reasonable standard would subject officers to greater danger while performing an already dangerous job.

“I was fighting for my life and fighting to protect complete strangers when I chose to stand between the gunman and the employees and patrons. The thought of having to second-guess my actions in that moment is frightening,” said Julie Robertson, a Sacramento deputy sheriff who watched her colleague get killed by a gunman when they responded to a disturbance at an auto-parts store last year.

“My only intention is to protect and save lives. How is it that I would be questioned and judged by the ones who live so distant from the dangers we inherently face each day?”

Though law-enforcement groups are largely opposed to Weber’s bill, several said they would keep working with her to find common ground. Police groups have backed competing legislation, Senate Bill 230, that focuses on updating department policies on the use of force and increasing training for officers. It will likely get its first hearing later this month.

Follow this issue as it moves through the Legislature this year with CALmatters’ podcast Force of Law. CALmatters.org is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media venture explaining California policies and politics.

Published in Politics

Cops have a lot of pull in the California Capitol, and over the decades, that’s added up to this startling reality: The Golden State now goes further than many states in terms of protecting police from public scrutiny.

It’s a stark contrast to the state’s “left coast” image. On abortion rights, gun control and climate change, California has embraced some of the most liberal policies in the nation.

But even with a statehouse controlled entirely by Democrats, California laws are friendlier to law enforcement—and less transparent to the public—than those in Wisconsin and Florida, states with Republican governors and legislatures.

One explanation is that politicians from both parties seek police endorsements to help them sway voters. Polling from last year showed that two-thirds of Californians think their local police are doing a good job controlling crime.

Another is that labor unions representing officers donate generously to elect officials at every level of government. Three major statewide law enforcement groups—the Peace Officers Research Association of California, the California Statewide Law Enforcement Association and the California Correctional Peace Officers Association—together poured $5.7 million into California political campaigns in the last election cycle, including giving $475,000 to the California Democratic Party and $168,500 to the California Republican Party. That doesn’t include the money dozens of local police unions around the state give to politicians.

As cities across the nation were roiled by police killings in recent years, the Legislature quietly killed proposals to create more police accountability. Now, as California’s capital city responds to the killing of Stephon Clark—the unarmed black man shot on March 18 by Sacramento police, who seemingly mistook the cellphone he held for a gun—some of those failed bills are being re-introduced.

California police shot 162 people dead last year, according to a tally by The Washington Post—which means the state has 16 percent of the nation’s killings by police, but only 12 percent of its population. Activists with the Black Lives Matter movement say legislation now proposed in California is “many years behind” and that Democrats in the Legislature have not been responsive to black communities on police issues.

“What happens is that the police unions (and) the police lobbyists come out in full force and then legislators who are afraid of their campaign coffers being interrupted side with law enforcement,” said Cat Brooks, founder of the Anti Police-Terror Project based in Oakland.

Police unions see it differently: Reactionary legislators propose unworkable bills, and then law enforcement helps them understand why the bills are bad ideas.

“We have been fortunate to have common sense prevail at the end, as opposed to the stuff that’s proposed at the beginning,” said Tom Saggau, a spokesman for the Los Angeles Police Protective League, a labor union.

When it comes to making campaign contributions, police are like most interest groups that work to influence public policy, said Brian Marvel, president of Peace Officers Research Association of California, an advocacy group.

“That’s politics in America,” he said.

Though the money helps, Marvel said, it is not the only reason police have influence in Sacramento: “Public safety resonates across both sides. People want to be safe in their home; people want to be safe to walk down the street; people respect law enforcement.”

Here are three ways in which California law protects police more than some states do—and one proposed law that would give it the nation’s toughest standard to justify police using deadly force.


California keeps police misconduct records secret

In most states, the public has at least some access to records that detail misconduct by police officers. Not so in California.

The Golden State is among 23 states that do not make discipline of police officers available through a public-records request—and one of just three states with laws specifically making police personnel records confidential, according to an investigation by New York public radio WNYC.

The secrecy—which dates back to a law Gov. Jerry Brown signed in 1978—makes it nearly impossible for Californians to know if the police who patrol their streets have ever been disciplined for excessive use of force.

“Law enforcement is the only public-employee group for which we have no access to the records. (With) every other employment category, you pretty much have full access under the Public Records Act,” said state Sen. Nancy Skinner, a Berkeley Democrat. “Good policing requires community trust.”

Her Senate Bill 1421 would make officers’ records public in three situations: when they fire a gun or use force resulting in serious injury or death; when they’ve engaged in sexual assault on the job; or when they’ve been dishonest in investigating a crime, such as by filing false reports or concealing evidence.

Similar legislation failed in 2016, facing stiff opposition from law enforcement groups who argued that it amounted to an invasion of privacy. It’s too soon to say if Skinner’s bill will meet the same fate, but at least one police group says it’s working to find common ground with her.

“We are trying to find how we can release some information once it’s gone through its administrative process or the courts,” said Marvel, a San Diego police officer who is president of the Peace Officers Research Association. “I think we can agree on a system of transparency that allows the community to have faith in their police department.”

Other law enforcement groups say there’s no need to open personnel records. Gary Ingemunson, an attorney for the LA police union, called Skinner’s proposal “a can of worms.” He said existing procedures—through the courts and citizen-review boards—provide sufficient accountability.

“Why are we opening it up? So the newspapers can have a field day?” Ingemunson said. “What’s really important is that the people who need to know have a way to find out. … It’s already as open as it needs to be, in our view.”


California lets local law enforcement police themselves

When police kill, it’s generally up to the local district attorney’s office to determine if it’s a crime. But sometimes they rely on investigations conducted by the cop’s own department, and research has shown that prosecutors rarely file criminal charges against officers involved in on-the-job shootings.

Police say that’s because the vast majority of their shootings are legally justified, done only when officers perceive an imminent threat. Critics say it’s because cops and prosecutors, who work together closely and spend money to help each other win elections, are too cozy.

Four other states require that a state agency—instead of local prosecutors—conduct the investigation when police conduct results in death. Wisconsin passed such a law in 2014 after a man whose son was killed by police used a $1.75 million settlement to lobby for the change.

In California, lawmakers have rejected the idea twice. But Sacramento Democratic Assemblyman Kevin McCarty—spurred on by the recent announcement that Sacramento police asked the state Attorney General to investigate the death of Stephon Clark—plans to re-introduce a bill requiring the state Justice Department to investigate deaths and serious injury caused by police.

“It raises a bigger question: why not for all the shootings?” McCarty said. “Having an independent third-party law enforcement agency come and do the investigation can bring about more transparency and more trust in the process.”

McCarty points to a report by the Stanford Criminal Justice Center that describes the Wisconsin law as a model California should follow. But Tanya Faison, a leader of Black Lives Matter in Sacramento, said such a change is far short of a panacea.

“There need to be oversight boards that reflect our community that do the investigations when police officers kill people,” Faison said. “This would move the needle in the right direction, but there is more work to do.”

Police opposed McCarty’s bill last year, saying people who mistrust local law enforcement are unlikely to have more confidence in state-level authorities. And they challenge the assumption that investigators can’t set aside their personal relationships to conduct a fair inquiry.

“What McCarty is saying is that these officers are unprofessional and can’t do their job,” said Marvel. “I don’t buy into that premise.”

California Attorney General Xavier Becerra chimed in with support only after last year’s bill was watered down to a study. Lawmakers then killed it in the Senate Appropriations Committee, where bills can die without a public vote.

Asked this month if he would support McCarty’s effort this year, Becerra was noncommittal. “What you want to make sure is that you have an investigation that withstands the test of transparency, scrutiny and accountability. That can be accomplished in any number of ways,” he said.

Establishing a unit in the state Department of Justice to investigate police shootings would cost between $8.5 million and $10 million a year, according to an analysis of prior legislation. McCarty said he’s exploring whether his proposal can be inserted into this year’s state budget.


California has no power to revoke a cop’s certification

State law says that anyone convicted of a felony cannot serve in law enforcement. Beyond that, though, California’s system for getting rid of bad cops is highly decentralized. The state has more than 600 law-enforcement agencies, and each one can decide if—short of a felony conviction—an officer’s misconduct is a firing offense.

It’s the opposite of how most of the country regulates police, according to research by Roger Goldman, a retired professor at the Saint Louis University School of Law. He said that 45 states have a centralized system for revoking an officer’s professional certification—and most of them do it for less than a felony conviction.

“States like Georgia, Florida and North Carolina are decertifying cops hand over fist, and California is decertifying nobody, other than if convicted of a felony,” Goldman said.

It wasn’t always like this. California used to allow its law-enforcement regulatory agency—known as the Commission on Peace Officer Standards and Training—to yank a cop’s certification. But in 2003, police unions lobbied the Legislature to take away that power, and Gov. Gray Davis signed the bill a month before he was recalled.

The other states with a decentralized system like California’s are Hawaii, New Jersey, Massachusetts and Rhode Island, Goldman said. “What do they have in common? Very blue. Very strong police unions. The (California) Legislature is obviously scared to death of taking on the police unions.”

Though Goldman contends that the lack of such a system makes it easier for bad cops in California to bounce from one department to another, state officials disagree. They argue that police departments here can do a background check on anyone they’re considering hiring and find out if they’ve been fired for misconduct.

“Just because California doesn’t have a process, per se, like other states (to) rescind or cancel a certificate or license, (that) doesn’t mean California takes that lightly,” said Dave Althausen, spokesman for the state regulatory agency.

It has a database that tracks every sworn officer in the state, he said, including when they were hired by a department and under what circumstances they left. If they are convicted of a felony, the law says the agency must note in their file that they are “ineligible to be a peace officer in California.”

But, Althausen acknowledged, there’s no requirement that agencies check the database when hiring a new officer.


And yet: California is now considering the nation’s toughest standards for use of deadly force

In 1989, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that police use of force is justified whenever a “reasonable officer” in the same circumstance would do the same, setting the legal standard now used in every state. It’s one reason so few cops are convicted of crimes when they kill—jurors must consider whether a reasonable officer perceiving the same threat would make the same split-second decision. If so, the killing is legally justified.

California lawmakers will consider a bill this year that would make California the only state in the nation to set a different standard—one supporters believe will make it easier to hold police accountable. Under AB 931, police could only use deadly force when “necessary” to prevent injury or death in the context of the officer’s entire encounter with a suspect—not just the moment before firing his gun. Killing would only be legally justified if other tactics, such as warnings or de-escalation, were not possible instead.

“We’re not saying that law enforcement officers can never use deadly force,” said Assemblywoman Shirley Weber, a San Diego Democrat carrying the bill with McCarty. “Deadly force can be used, but only when it is completely necessary.”

Lawyers with the American Civil Liberties Union, which is backing the bill, say the Supreme Court standard sets a minimum level of protection for civilians confronted by police, and that states can choose to set a higher bar. But Ingemunson, the lawyer for the LA police union questioned that, saying the proposed standard may violate officers’ rights under federal law.

“The theory would be that an officer also has rights, and one might be to be judged by the federal standard, not some state standard,” he said.

Police are frustrated that the bill language has not yet been made public (as of this story’s publication) and say it’s hypocritical of the ACLU to criticize law enforcement for a lack of transparency while working with legislators behind the scenes to draft a bill that would impact their profession. They also warn that the “necessary” standard might discourage police from going into dangerous situations where their help is needed.

“It would be a colossal hindrance to law enforcement in this state,” said Marvel. “It would take away our ability to react efficiently and effectively. Officers will be thinking, ‘Should I really be doing this? Should I run away?’”

Though no other states have a standard like the one California is considering, some police departments have a standard higher than the one set by the Supreme Court in their internal policies. Seth Stoughton, an assistant professor at the University of South Carolina School of Law, researched use-of-force policies in the nation’s 50 largest police departments for a paper published last year. He concluded that Los Angeles has nothing in its policy describing a continuum of the types of force that should be deployed, while Seattle has the most detailed policy, stating, in part, that officers must “use only the force necessary to perform their duties.”

“The Supreme Court case law sets a (low) floor, but not a ceiling on how agencies handle use of force internally,” Stoughton wrote.

Franklin Zimring, a professor at UC Berkeley’s law school, said the California Legislature could best impact police behavior by increasing the amount of civil damages victims may seek in lawsuits over deadly force.

“The major force in controlling, or failing to control, police use of force is the police chief,” Zimring said. “What state law can do is … make excessive use of deadly force expensive enough to motivate police chiefs.”

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

Published in Local Issues

With a bill to mandate the independent investigation of officer-involved killings in California stalled in committee, other legislative efforts have revealed lawmakers’ picky appetites for holding law-enforcement communities accountable.

Assemblyman Kevin McCarty’s bill to outsource the investigation of fatal police encounters, AB 86, is being “held under submission.” The term means there’s a stated desire to discuss the bill, but no forward momentum to move it out of committee.

The same fate recently visited Assemblywoman Shirley Weber’s Assembly Bill 619, which would require law-enforcement agencies to report their use-of-force encounters to the California attorney general’s office on an annual basis.

There currently is no official database documenting fatal police encounters, much less one for confrontations that stop short of death. Weber’s bill would greatly expand what is known about when and how force is applied by California’s law-enforcement establishment.

Referencing the viral-video litany that includes such names as Eric Garner, Walter Scott and Freddie Gray, racial-justice advocate Chauncee Smith indicated that lawmakers have before them a grim opportunity.

“While it is quite difficult to discern betterment in such tragedy, if it exists, it may be that it has delivered a proverbial gut check to our society,” Smith, who works for the American Civil Liberties Union of California, told an Assembly committee on May 27.

Yet the guts of lawmakers may not be quite as big as their eyes. The tepid response to Weber’s AB 619 is due, in part, to its $3.3 million price tag.

Finding more support was AB 1289, authored by a former cop himself, Assemblyman Jim Cooper, of Elk Grove. Unanimously approved by the state Assembly, the proposal now moves to the Senate. If passed, the bill would require a study on local community policing and engagement strategies. The bill shifts that authority from the nonpartisan Legislative Analyst’s Office to the Commission on Peace Officer Standards and Training, which sets the minimum standards for becoming a cop.

Taryn Kinney, a spokesperson for Assemblyman Cooper, said it was the LAO that recommended the shift, since POST’s contacts with local law enforcement agencies would make the data-collection process easier.

Lastly, there’s AB 953, also by Weber. It would expand California’s prohibition against racial profiling to include all forms of identity bias, and create an advisory board under the state attorney general’s office to oversee such efforts in 2016.

AB 953 advanced through the Assembly’s appropriations committee on May 28.

“We’ll see if our Assembly actually has the courage to do what the people are asking for,” Weber said during the committee meeting.

Apparently, there was some courage in the Assembly: It passed on June 3, and the bill is now in the Senate’s hands.

A version of this story originally appeared in the Sacramento News & Review.

Published in Politics