Law enforcement loses a round in legislative fight over police use of deadly force
California law enforcement has been trying to fend off tighter restrictions on the use of deadly force. But police unions lost a round on Tuesday when the state Legislature gutted parts of a bill they were pushing that would have effectively codified the status quo.
Until this week, California legislators were debating two competing pieces of legislation as they faced sustained calls for reforming the state’s use-of-force laws, largely to prevent shooting deaths of black and brown men.
Assembly Bill 392, backed by activists, has been called the toughest standard in the nation for when police can use deadly force. It was written months after Sacramento police shot a black man, Stephon Clark, last March, mistaking his cell phone for a gun.
Senate Bill 230, backed by law enforcement, attempted to codify into state law long-standing federal legal standards that justify deadly force when an average officer would find it reasonable to use it — and provided a softer option for moderate Democrats who might have wanted to appease activists while ducking substantive change.
In a move that surprised many on both sides, a Senate legislative committee Tuesday removed all mention of use of force from Senate Bill 230, leaving the activist-backed Assembly measure as the only option for legislators to consider and forcing police to either negotiate on new rules or oppose change in a politically fraught moment.
Sen. Nancy Skinner (D-Berkeley), chair of the Senate Public Safety Committee, told audience members at the packed gathering that the “majority of (committee) members are not willing to put into law the use-of-force standard as it exists today” and as written in SB 230, because it is “antiquated, inadequate and unjust.”
Skinner apologized to the hearing audience for the late amendments, which were so last minute that lawmakers made available only mocked-up copies of the proposed changes before a unanimous vote to move the measure to its next committee.
Senate Bill 230 now solely deals with increased training for law enforcement and has been tied to AB 392 as a subsidiary measure, meaning it can’t be passed into law unless the Assembly bill is passed. It is rare that bills are linked in this fashion.
Law enforcement representatives acknowledged that removing any use-of-force discussion from their bill was unexpected and not a decision they were happy with but said they were willing to sit down with the author of the opposing measure, Assemblywoman Shirley Weber (D-San Diego), to work on a compromise.
Previous talks have not been productive. Representatives from both sides of the issue met last year on a measure, Assembly Bill 931, a precursor to this year’s Assembly bill, that ultimately failed after compromise could not be reached. They again have held a series of talks this year that have not elicited a deal.
“We went through several months of conversations with law enforcement in the fall and again nothing came out of it, everybody went their own way,” said Joe Kocurek, communications director for Weber. “All I can say now is, I don’t know and we’ll see.”
Kocurek said he believed the joining of the two bills could be beneficial for the momentum of AB 392, despite the “very strange development.”
Ron Lawrence, president of the California Police Chiefs Association, said some provisions in the Assembly bill are “nonstarters,” including a change in the use-of-force standard from when force is “reasonable” to when it is “necessary.” Many in law enforcement feel that change would endanger officers and open the door for more criminal charges when officers do use fatal force.
“It’s hard to say this, but if you start making cops second-guess things, it’s going to be a public safety nightmare,” said James Wheeler, vice president of the Association for Los Angeles Deputy Sheriffs.
If law enforcement is unable to find language that AB 392 backers are happy with, police might oppose the bill — bringing on a showdown between the powerful law enforcement lobby at the Capitol and activists who have marched, rallied and filled hearings for more than a year with emotional testimony from families of victims.
“If we can’t find the middle ground here, then I think that we are not going to compromise our communities and … put our officers in a dangerous situation,” said Lawrence. “The fact that we agreed to these amendments does show a good faith effort. We could have taken our bat and ball and went home but we didn’t. We said, ‘Okay, we’ll take it.’ ”
Reform advocates did not uniformly applaud Tuesday’s move, and several feared that negotiations could lead to a watering down of AB 392 or an exclusion of activists from bargaining.
“They are saying they want to come to the table and they want to discuss it, but … families impacted are never included at those table discussions and we need to be there,” said Laurie Valdez, partner of Antonio Guzman-Lopez, who was shot by San Jose State University Police. “They need to have our voices, because we are the ones that have to live with this day in and day out.”
Others saw the abrupt modifications as proof that momentum built over many months and outrage over dozens of police shootings is having an effect in the Capitol, where law enforcement has long been an unassailable force.
“It gave us more power,” said Cephus Johnson, uncle of Oscar Grant, who was shot by a BART police officer in 2009. “We have the strength to win, that’s what this has been all about.”
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