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Stall tactics. Distractions. Lobbying. How police reform was derailed in California

People with "I Can't Breathe" signs are seen during a protest over the death of George Floyd in Chicago, May 30, 2020.
People with “I Can’t Breathe” signs and masks attend a protest over the death of George Floyd in Chicago, May 30, 2020.
(Nam Y. Huh/Associated Press)

By the time the sun set at the Capitol on Monday evening, hours from a legal deadline to pass bills for the year, state Sen. Steven Bradford knew his proposal to strip badges from troubled officers was in trouble.

For weeks prior, police reform bills were points of contention — even among Democratic legislators publicly sympathetic to the cause but privately circumspect, often under the pressure of intense lobbying by law enforcement interests.

But then, in the last hours, chaos broke out at the Capitol, with technological troubles, overt anger between lawmakers and partisan wrangling bringing the Senate to a halt and slowing business throughout the building. Bradford (D-Gardena) was unable to even have the bill called for a floor vote in the state Assembly, he said.

Bradford contends more than one colleague used the tumult of the night to slow his bill and keep it from getting a vote — thereby saving those on the fence from having to go on the record opposing police reform at a time when the majority of Californians are in support of it.

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“What we went through was clearly a stall tactic,” said Bradford on Tuesday. “A lot of them just chose to use the clock as their excuse and the later it got the more cover they had.”

Bradford’s bill had company. Legislative proposals to give citizens access to more police personnel records and curtail the use of tear gas and rubber bullets at protests were among those that perished late Monday without a vote. Their demise marks the end of a legislative session that began with more than a dozen proposals for more law enforcement accountability and oversight and ended with a handful of modest wins.

Overall, it was a demonstration that law enforcement unions still hold serious sway at the Capitol, especially when given an assist by late-session disarray. Some reform advocates were surprised.

“Many of us didn’t really foresee as much opposition as we wound up getting,” said Melina Abdullah, founder of Black Lives Matter Los Angeles, which co-sponsored Bradford’s bill. “I think it’s outrageous and tragic.”

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After George Floyd was killed in Minnesota in May, protests shook California and the country, spurring the police reform proposals. Bradford’s bill, SB 731, quickly became the top target for police unions, nearly all unhappy with its plan for a strong citizen’s oversight commission that included family of victims of police violence.

Law enforcement interests also set their sights on a measure, SB 776, by state Sen. Nancy Skinner (D-Berkeley), to open more police personnel records to the public.

But with lawmakers facing a massive budget deficit, wildfires, eviction cliffs, unemployment and the pandemic, police reform competed for attention in the subsequent weeks. Not even protests around the shooting of Jacob Blake in Wisconsin in recent days brought the early momentum back.

On the night lawmakers ended their session, L.A. Sheriff’s deputies shot and killed a Black man in South Los Angeles, but by then, everything was happening too fast.

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“All the sudden so many other things were distracting the public and distracting the members,” said Skinner. “Did [law enforcement] take advantage of it? To a degree, but yet they didn’t have to take advantage. It just happened.”

To cut through that, lobbyists both for and against police reform had waged a fierce fight in the final week to recapture legislators’ support.

Kim Kardashian West and singer Aloe Blacc took to Twitter to call out specific legislators, demanding they support Bradford’s bill.

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Police unions quietly countered with discreet conversations with friendly legislators about the hurried nature of those bills — both of which were introduced only weeks earlier — pushing to delay them until next year.

Then, on Monday night, with Republican legislators unhappy at being forced to vote remotely after being banned from the building because of a potential GOP coronavirus outbreak, the situation became even more turbulent. A fight broke out in the Senate between leadership trying to move bills along by limiting debate and Republicans forced to zoom in their votes amid endless mute-unmute fiascos.

Tempers flared. Obscenities were deployed.

Republican Sen. Melissa Melendez (R-Lake Elsinore) used an expletive on Twitter to accuse the Democrats of limiting to two the number of speakers on each bill. “This silences the voices of millions of people so Democrats have enough time to pass their crappy bills before midnight. This is outrageous,” she wrote.

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Skinner shot back with tweets of her own, writing that “Democracy is a team sport. The Legislature is a team sport. One of the teams is acting out and undermining the People’s Business. It’s bad sportsmanship, and it’s wrong.”

By nighttime, the Capitol seemed frozen by a collective meltdown, putting the brakes on the people’s business and creating a time crunch that affected all pending legislation.

“This wasn’t a victory of police unions. Police unions won the lottery,” said Peter Bibring, an ACLU attorney who helped write the police de-certification bill. “This was a failure of leadership, a failure of courage, a failure to meet the moment and a failure to respond to the demands of constituents.”

Abdullah agrees — pointing out that Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon could have called the decertification bill for a vote earlier in the night.

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“We wanted at least the opportunity to get people to vote for it or at least go on the record of opposing it,” said Abdullah.

A statement from Rendon late Tuesday said Bradford’s bill “did not have enough votes in the Assembly to pass this session, but I do not take that as a defeat of this effort at justice. I am personally in support of SB 731.”

Though Bradford was unsure if he had the 41 necessary votes for its passage, he said that often legislators won’t make a final decision until they see how their colleagues are voting, and he would have welcomed their being given a chance. He believed there were 14 wobblers who may have ultimately helped him pass the measure.

Some said blaming it on the discord of the night was not the full picture.

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Assemblyman Chris Holden (D-Pasadena) pointed out his measure fell victim to police lobbying weeks earlier. That bill, which would have clarified how and when officers had a duty to intervene when a colleague used excessive force, was another target of law enforcement and died weeks ago in committee.

Holden said there was a “hard push” by unions to make sure it didn’t advance. He said he received no clear feedback on why the bill didn’t move forward, just notice that it wouldn’t.

He said in recent weeks, he has seen grow at the Capitol “an atmosphere and environment that meets [a law enforcement] narrative, and it is basically, ‘Not now.’ So, OK, they won that round, not now.”

Skinner said she has seen some movement on the part of police labor groups, but thinks the broader “universe” of law enforcement interests at the Capitol, combining unions, district attorneys associations and sheriffs, when united, are a formidable power.

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“When they are united in opposing something, their influence is huge,” she said.

Law enforcement, including police unions in Los Angeles and San Francisco, have voiced support for legislation to decertify officers, and after Monday’s win, they quickly stressed they would work cooperatively next session on a bill to make that happen. But they added that lawmakers were right not to enact flawed legislation.

“With over two dozen public safety bills introduced in this shortened legislative session due to COVID-19, we look forward to working with our elected leaders to ensure these issues are well researched and properly vetted as we head into the 2021 session,” said Brian Marvel, President of the Peace Officers Research Assn. of California.

The group, he added, “remains committed to working with our legislators to develop and champion new policies that will raise recruitment standards, improve transparency and place officers in a better position to serve our communities.”

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Police unions suffered a setback last year when lawmakers passed a bill to redefine when officers can use deadly force. Now, say reform advocates, it is clear their power is back in full effect.

“They are never going to give up easy,” said Skinner. “We’ll come back next year.”

Staff writer Melody Gutierrez contributed to this report.


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