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Is Prop. 47, which reduced some sentences, partly to blame for more officer-involved shootings? Experts are wary about making that link

Warning, graphic content: A Huntington Beach police officer was captured on video Friday morning as he struggled with a suspect in a convenience store parking lot and then fatally shot the man.

A man wounded by Huntington Beach police gunfire in an altercation in September had a previous felony drug conviction that was reduced to a misdemeanor in accord with a 2014 state ballot measure that downgraded some drug and theft charges, Orange County Superior Court records show.

In July 2014 — four months before voters passed Proposition 47 — Garrett Meyer pleaded guilty to possession of a controlled substance. The charge at the time was classified as a felony under state law. However, in April 2015, the charge was reclassified as a misdemeanor, according to court records. He was sentenced to three years’ probation.

Some officials have drawn a connection between Huntington Beach’s seven officer-involved shootings this year and the effects of the proposition, which several law enforcement agencies have argued has resulted in many reduced sentences and early prison releases and allowed repeat offenders to continue breaking the law with little consequence.

Proponents of the proposition say it has been effective in reducing the prison and jail populations and has allowed people with older felony convictions to clean up their records, enabling them to qualify for jobs and other benefits.

The number of Huntington Beach police shootings in 2017 — two of which killed suspects — is more than any other year this decade, according to Police Department archives.

When asked in September about the increased frequency of such shootings, Huntington Beach City Council members Patrick Brenden and Erik Peterson said they may be indicative of Prop. 47.

“Police all over are dealing with more issues, and the state has tied their hands,” Peterson said.

But based on Superior Court records, it appears Meyer, 29, of Huntington Beach, is the only suspect involved in a police shooting in the city this year who may have benefited from the law. Still, it isn’t clear how the law may have affected his sentence.

Peterson and Brenden clarified in a follow-up interview that they wouldn’t specifically connect the officer-involved shootings to the law.

Instead, the number of such shootings is more closely linked to societal issues law enforcement is grappling with in the community, such as homelessness, drug abuse and mental illness, Brenden said.

Still, both councilmen said the proposition makes it more difficult for law enforcement to put criminals behind bars, which puts communities at risk.

“With more of a criminal element out there, there’s more chances for there to be altercations with officers,” Brenden said. “Some of those turn out badly.”

Some experts are wary of connecting fluctuations in crime and related incidents to Prop. 47. Peter Hanink, a Ph.D. candidate at UC Irvine who is studying the use of deadly force by police departments, said it’s too early to make a determination about the proposition’s effects, whether positive or negative.

“There’s no data to support it’s caused a meaningful increase in any particular kind of crime,” Hanink said. “There’s also no data to suggest it’s causing crime to decrease.”

Meyer’s scuffle with Huntington Beach police on Sept. 7 landed him with felony charges, including vandalism and assault with a deadly weapon on a peace officer. He pleaded not guilty to both charges Sept. 19, according to court records.

The shooting unfolded just after 7 a.m. when Huntington Beach officers were called to Delaware Street near Utica Avenue in response to a report of a man with a knife.

Officers said they found Meyer in a narrow walkway between two fenced patios attached to multifamily complexes. Authorities allege the man confronted the officers with a knife and a shooting occurred. Meyer and two officers were injured.

About two weeks later, on Sept. 22, Dillan Tabares, a 27-year-old homeless Navy veteran who had recently been paroled from state prison, was fatally shot in an altercation with a officer that was captured on video.

Tabares’ mother said he had struggled with drug abuse and mental health issues.

Keramet Reiter, a criminology professor at UC Irvine, said there appears to be a more clear connection between crime and issues such as mental health and lack of social services.

But one city can’t tackle those challenges alone, local officials say.

“We’re so strapped as it is with day-to-day problems like keeping our infrastructure up that we don’t have the extra money to do anything,” Peterson said. “It has to be a statewide solution. Maybe it starts with the counties.

“It’s above my pay grade. I wish I had an answer or a magic wand to fix it.”

hannah.fry@latimes.com

Twitter: @HannahFryTCN


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