Lawmakers in the Assembly narrowly approved a measure that would prohibit secret grand juries to consider incidents of excessive or deadly force by police officers on Thursday.
“The grand jury system lacks transparency,” said Assemblyman Bill Quirk (D-Hayward), who presented the bill in the Assembly.
The measure by state Sen. Holly Mitchell (D-Los Angeles) was introduced after grand juries failed to return in indictments on the officer-involved deaths of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., and Eric Garner in New York. The decisions sparked protests across the country and renewed debate on police use of force, particularly when dealing with black communities.
A federal Department of Justice report released in March largely agreed with the decision not to charge Ferguson police Officer Darren Wilson in Brown’s death, but found the department had repeatedly engaged in racist practices.
In New York, the city announced a $5.9-million settlement with Garner’s estate on Monday.
Instead of grand juries, Mitchell and her supporters want such cases to go through preliminary hearings, a public process that includes judges, prosecutors and defense lawyers and has strict standards of evidence.
“The public has the right to know that such a grave allegation is taken seriously and is investigated thoroughly,” Quirk said.
The counties of Los Angeles and Santa Clara do not impanel grand juries for cases involving deadly or excessive force by police.
Law enforcement groups including the California Police Chiefs Assn. and the California District Attorneys Assn. opposed the measure, SB 227, arguing it would take away an important tool in the criminal justice system.
“The grand jury system has been, and continues to be, an appropriate and useful prosecutorial tool in cases where evidence is unclear, subject to conflicting accounts, or involves witnesses who may be reluctant to cooperate, as is often the case in use-of-force investigations,” said Sean Hoffman, a lobbyist for the California District Attorneys Assn, in an email.
“While SB 227 would remove that option in these particular cases, district attorneys across California will continue to make filing decisions that are informed and unbiased,” he said.
Republicans voted against the legislation, and a number of Democrats opposed it or abstained from voting. The measure passed with 41 votes, a bare majority, and now heads to Gov. Jerry Brown.
Assemblyman Ian Calderon (D-Whittier), who held off from voting on the bill, noted the recent controversies over grand juries occurred outside of California.
“The argument’s been made that this could be a problem in other states and not necessarily in our state,” said Calderon.
“I wasn’t convinced there was enough of a problem to support the bill at this time,” he added.
Mitchell said her measure was a part of a broader debate about police practices. Lawmakers introduced a slate of bills regarding police force this year, although many of those bills have failed or been sidelined.
“We really have to continue this meaningful conversation about bias, excessive force, and the disproportionate number of people of color who are dying at the hands of law enforcement, many times unarmed,” Mitchell said.
Follow @melmason for more on California government and politics.