With Gov. Gavin Newsom’s signature Monday, a landmark California bill to raise the standard for when police can legally use deadly force is law. Because the bill tries to walk the life-and-death line both for officers who encounter potentially dangerous people in the line of duty and for suspects (some innocent and some not), its path through the legislative process was paved with emotion. So it’s important to zero in what this modest but important measure actually does, what it does not do and how it provides a model for legislation around the nation.
Assembly Bill 392 makes it clear that deadly use of police force must be a last resort. Officers may pull the trigger only when “necessary,” meaning when no alternatives are available to prevent serious injury or death to themselves or others.
The standard is a step up from the current rule that officers may shoot to kill whenever it is “reasonable” to do so — yet the shades of distinction between “reasonable” and “necessary,” as commonly used, are not always immediately obvious and will require fine-tuning through court decisions.
The goal is to simultaneously keep officers as safe as possible and to reduce the number of fatal shootings by police, many of which resulted in the deaths of unarmed black men often without disciplinary action against the officers.
The need for change begins with the understanding that too many people are killed by police without adequate reason. Americans who pose no threat ought to be able to live their lives without being killed by police, even — especially — when they are suspected of crimes and are stopped by officers.
Under rules still operative in most of the country, an officer can fire whenever the situation would permit another reasonable officer to do so. It’s a somewhat circular kind of logic, and individual determinations are generally made after the fact, in court, based on testimony by officers and other experts. That means police officers essentially determine for each other when they should or should not be held accountable for pulling the trigger, even when there may have been nonlethal ways to de-escalate the situation, and even when it is later determined that the suspect was unarmed. The new standard permits shooting only when there are no readily available alternatives.
But police are not required to be omniscient. Officers who see a suspect in a shooting stance and observe a flash that they take to be gunfire — as was the case in the Stephon Clark shooting in Sacramento — may still defend themselves. In other words, it’s not at all clear that the new law would have changed the outcome of the Clark case.
Moving forward, though, it should provide an incentive for officers to demand, and departments to provide, more and better training on nonlethal alternatives for dealing with suspect encounters. A companion bill, sponsored by police organizations, paves the way for training, as does funding in the new state budget.