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After Stephon Clark shooting, California lawmakers push to make it easier to prosecute police officers

After Stephon Clark shooting, California lawmakers push to make it easier to prosecute police officers
Assemblywoman Shirley Weber (D-San Diego), center, listens to a question during a news conference announcing her bill on police prosecutions Tuesday in Sacramento. (Rich Pedroncelli / Associated Press)

Flanked by civil rights advocates, California lawmakers announced new legislation Tuesday designed to make it easier to prosecute police officers who kill civilians.

"We have been deeply saddened and frustrated by the killing of black and brown men by law enforcement," said Assemblywoman Shirley Weber (D-San Diego), the bill's author. "It seems that the worst possible outcome is increasingly the only outcome that we experience."

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The bill follows the Sacramento shooting of Stephon Clark, an unarmed, 22-year-old black man who was killed in his grandmother's backyard last month by police looking for a vandal in the neighborhood. Lawmakers described Clark's killing, and other instances in which officers shot black and Latino residents, as the impetus behind the legislation.

The Sacramento incident has sparked protests in the capital city, and Raj Manni, grandfather of Clark's children, attended Tuesday morning's news conference at the Capitol.

Weber and other legislators supporting the bill described the measure as the most far-reaching in the country to allow for the prosecution of officers who kill civilians. Under current law, police use of deadly force must be "objectively reasonable."

Weber's bill would make two key changes. It says officers could use deadly force only if it's necessary to prevent imminent and serious bodily injury or death, encouraging prosecutors to consider whether officers could have deescalated the situation with verbal warnings or used nonlethal force beforehand. It also would allow prosecutors to take into account an officer's actions prior to a killing that could have negligently placed the officer in harm's way.

Advocates pointed to the killing of 12-year-old Tamir Rice in Cleveland in 2014 as an example in which it might have been easier to charge officers under the proposed standard. In that case, Cleveland police responded to a 911 call mentioning someone who was pointing a gun outside a recreation center, and killed Rice, who was holding a pellet gun. Officers pulled up within feet of Rice and shot him less than two seconds after arriving. A grand jury declined to indict the officers, saying they reasonably feared for their safety.

Activist groups cheered the announcement of Weber's bill Tuesday . Samuel Sinyangwe, co-founder of Campaign Zero, the policy arm of the Black Lives Matter movement, said no state currently takes into account officers' actions leading up to killings when determining whether to prosecute. Just four states — Delaware, Iowa, Rhode Island and Tennessee — require officers to exhaust all other reasonable means before using deadly force, Sinyangwe said. Police killings in those states are 17% lower than the rest of the country, according to data compiled by Sinyangwe's organization.

"It's a huge deal," Sinyangwe said of the bill. "It's probably the biggest thing that can be done to address police shootings is to address deadly force standards."

Robert Weisberg, a Stanford law professor and co-director of the school's Criminal Justice Center, said it would be hard to tell how much the law might change prosecutors' ability to charge officers or gain convictions. No officer, he said, is going to say that it wasn't necessary for them to use deadly force. And it's unclear, he said, how much time prior to specific incidents that officer behavior could be scrutinized as part of a criminal case.

Still, Weisberg said the bill would add pressure to prosecute police.

"It is clearly a kind of admonition to the courts and to police officers that the ante is being upped," he said.

Law enforcement organizations are expected to strongly oppose the legislation. Officer groups have long noted that police have to make split-second decisions to protect bystanders and their own safety, something courts must take into consideration when weighing the use of excessive force.

Craig Lally, the president of the Los Angeles Police Protective League, the union representing rank-and-file Los Angeles police officers, said in a statement that the bill ignores the dangers involved in policing and that LAPD training ensures that officers use deadly force only when it's absolutely necessary.

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If the bill becomes law, Lally said, "it will either get cops killed or allow criminals to terrorize our streets unchecked."

"It's one thing to criticize from your keyboard or from behind a microphone at a press conference; it's another to actually work in the very real and dangerous world of policing," he said.

Ron Hernandez, the president of the Assn. for Los Angeles Deputy Sheriffs, had similarly strong words. He said in a statement that the measure would replace longstanding Supreme Court precedent with "an unworkable standard whose goal is to criminalize use of force by law enforcement."

Those at Tuesday's news conference, however, said that current policies must change. Activists called out the names of those they said were unnecessarily killed by police officers in recent years. Lawmakers also cited disparities in how police have used deadly force against black residents who turned out to be unarmed compared to other situations, including a 2015 incident in which police took into custody a white man who had killed nine attendees of a historically black church in South Carolina.

"African Americans in this country and in the great state of California feel a target is on their back by police and the justice system," said Assemblyman Chris Holden (D-Pasadena), who is the chairman of the Legislative Black Caucus.

"We should no longer be the target practice or victims of a shoot first, ask questions later police force," he added.

Weber's legislation, which has yet to be formally introduced, will be Assembly Bill 931.

Sacramento District Atty. Anne Marie Schubert has pledged a full investigation of the Clark killing before deciding whether to prosecute the officers involved. State Atty. Gen. Xavier Becerra is assisting in that investigation, and also reviewing the Sacramento Police Department's internal use-of-force policies. Becerra's office did not respond to a request for comment on the bill.

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