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Police use-of-force bill advances after California law enforcement agrees to changes

Police use-of-force bill advances after California law enforcement agrees to changes
Sequitta Thompson, center, is joined by family and activists in calling for justice for her grandson Stephon Clark at a news conference this year in Sacramento about the deadly police shooting. (Rich Pedroncelli / Associated Press)

A controversial bill that would give California one of the nation’s toughest police use-of-force standards went from a long shot to a near certainty Thursday after law enforcement groups removed their opposition and the governor and top political leaders announced their support.

The shift on Assembly Bill 392 is partly due to new amendments that remove some language troubling to police.

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But the bill’s ascension also signals a potential decline in the clout of law enforcement groups, which have long wielded the ability to kill legislation in the state Capitol. The deal suggests a new progressive coalition could be forming between Gov. Gavin Newsom and legislative leaders willing to break tradition.

“This is an important bill, one that will help restore community trust in our criminal justice system,” Newsom said, thanking the author and legislative leaders for their work on the proposal.

Ron Hernandez, president of the Assn. for Los Angeles Deputy Sheriffs, said his group had been working “tirelessly” with legislative leaders this week and would remain neutral on the resulting effort.

“We will not support the bill, as it is far from perfect, but the amendments have addressed our biggest fears,” Hernandez said in a statement.

Other law enforcement groups echoed that sentiment.

Assembly Bill 392 has been one of the year’s hardest-fought measures, with Black Lives Matter and other activists championing it as bringing unprecedented accountability for how police use deadly force, especially in communities of color. Part of the bill’s driving force was the 2018 police killing of Stephon Clark, whom Sacramento officers shot after they mistook his cellphone for a weapon.

Police previously argued the bill would put their lives at risk by allowing their split-second decisions to be second-guessed. For months, a compromise seemed unlikely. But on Thursday, groups including the California Highway Patrol, Peace Officers Research Assn. of California and California State Sheriffs’ Assn. took a neutral position on AB 392.

At the core of the dispute over the measure was changing the standard for when lethal force can be used from when it is “reasonable” to when it is “necessary.”

The bill, substantially restructured, retains the “necessary” language — though its definition has been removed. Also removed is language explicitly requiring officers to exhaust nonlethal alternatives before resorting to deadly force.

“This is a strong bill that moves California from having one of the most permissive use-of-force statutes in the country to the strongest necessary standard,” said Peter Bibring, an American Civil Liberties Union lawyer who helped write the bill. “This bill will save lives.”

The bill also retains language that will expand the scope of investigations around lethal incidents. Current law permits only the moment the deadly force is used to be considered when determining whether an officer acted legally. Assembly Bill 392 would allow the “totality of circumstances” to be examined, including actions an officer took leading up to the killing.

Law enforcement advocates said that would push departments to conduct broader internal reviews and could change how officers are disciplined and trained. In some circumstances, it could allow officers to be prosecuted based on their conduct leading up to a lethal event.

The new momentum for the bill comes one year after the Legislature passed a first-of-its-kind law in California, Senate Bill 1421, to open up police records to the public after strong opposition from law enforcement. Its passage was an early indicator of changing priorities at the Capitol, though a similar iteration of AB 392 was held in the state Senate because of law enforcement opposition.

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Senate leader Toni Atkins (D-San Diego) said she has been intimately involved in discussions on the use of force since last year, when that bill failed.

“All of the pressure came from many different directions,” Atkins said. “Without the governor, however, I don’t know that we would be where we are today.”

Newsom began engaging on the proposal shortly after his election and encouraged law enforcement to agree to a deal in a private meeting Wednesday. With legislative leadership applying pressure, police agreed to a compromise and received more money and new training requirements to help them prepare for the change.

The bill is likely to advance to a vote of the full Assembly in coming days, and Newsom’s office has said he will sign it if it clears the Senate unchanged.

“With so many unnecessary deaths, I think everyone agrees that we need to change how deadly force is used in California,” said Assemblywoman Shirley Weber (D-San Diego), the bill’s author, in a statement. “We can now move a policy forward that will save lives and change the culture of policing in California.”

Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon (D-Lakewood) commended Weber’s “moral strength” in pushing the bill forward.

“We need this resolution to save lives, protect public safety, and guarantee justice in every community,” he said.

Although Thursday’s events were widely viewed as a major victory for police accountability activists, there was some disappointment that the bill could not move forward in its original form.

The changes “are problematic for us but not so problematic for us that we are going to be coming off the bill,” said Melina Abdullah, co-founder of the Los Angeles chapter of Black Lives Matter, which was a sponsor on the bill. “We still think its important legislation, just not as far-reaching as we hoped it would be.”

Abdullah said she reached out to families of those who had lost loved ones to police shootings before making a final decision on the bill. When those families voiced support for the revised legislation, the group decided to continue its support.

Alice Corley, whose son Lionel Gibson was shot by Long Beach police in 2016, was one of those who urged Black Lives Matter to continue.

“We still have made a difference,” Corley said. “It isn’t exactly the same, but we have a voice and we were heard.”

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