In the waning days of the 2015 legislative session, activists staged a massive die-in at the California Capitol and crowded the halls outside Gov. Jerry Brown’s office, chanting for him to sign a bill that would require law enforcement to gather and report data on police stops.
Supporters of the policy, which they hoped would illuminate the extent of racial profiling against minorities, had watched as measure after measure designed to rein in law enforcement practices fell short that year. When their pressure campaign worked, and Brown signed Assembly Bill 953 into law the following month, it provided advocates of greater police oversight with a rare legislative victory.
While the Black Lives Matter movement and a spate of high-profile police killings sparked a national debate over accountability in recent years, the California Legislature has enacted few changes since — and lawmakers are skeptical that the Sunday night death of Stephon Clark in south Sacramento will change that.
Even in a liberal state, where the governor has prioritized loosening old tough-on-crime policies, legislators say the enormous influence of law enforcement groups makes it nearly impossible to pursue bills on police shootings, misconduct and body cameras.
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“It’s really quite sad, when you think about it, because these things are still occurring,” said Assemblywoman Shirley Weber, the San Diego Democrat who carried AB 953.
She referenced an old saying about being shot down in the street like a dog, then said she feels like California responds to the mistreatment of dogs with greater indignation than it does to police shooting black people.
“The public has to become outraged with the people they elect that won’t fight for what is right,” Weber said.
California has strict laws against releasing information on officers who are disciplined. Police unions argue it is necessary to protect their privacy and safety, and they have aggressively fought legislation to expand access.
Former Sen. Mark Leno, D-San Francisco, led a major push two years ago to make public the records related to investigations of police use of force resulting in death or serious injury, as well as sustained findings of misconduct. Senate Bill 1286 did not get a floor vote, and efforts to revive the bill since he termed out have been even less successful.
Communities across the state also have a patchwork of rules for the use of body cameras by police, which advocates believe provide an opportunity for greater transparency about how officers do their jobs. But numerous measures to regulate them, including one by Weber, bogged down in the past three legislative sessions over disagreements about whether to require them and under what conditions.
So have bills concerning the release of body camera footage.
Assemblyman Bill Quirk, D-Hayward, sought two years ago to make the videos available for public request within 60 days of alleged misconduct by an officer; Assembly Bill 1957 died on the Assembly floor.
In return, civil rights groups worked to defeat legislation supported by police groups that would have allowed officers to review their footage before filing a report, given them the opportunity to seek an injunction against the release of a video they believed would endanger them, and blocked videos depicting the death of an officer.
Legislators who have pursued bills on policing said the failure to take any action diminishes minority communities’ trust in law enforcement. When they don’t think they will be treated fairly, Weber said, people of color are afraid to contact the police and they lose out on the benefit of public safety.
Assemblyman Kevin McCarty, D-Sacramento, has carried two unsuccessful bills to introduce state oversight of police shootings. Assembly Bill 284 last year would have created an independent unit within the California Department of Justice to investigate and recommend whether to press charges, after the Sacramento County District Attorney’s Office cleared two officers who attempted to run down Joseph Mann with their cruisers and then shot him 18 times.
McCarty said independent investigations are necessary because local prosecutors are too cozy with the law enforcement agencies they regularly work with to ensure a fair outcome. But he scaled the measure back to a study to ensure Attorney General Xavier Becerra’s support, before it was held in the Senate. He is considering trying again this session through the budget.
“The findings at the end of the day are always going to be suspect,” McCarty said. “There has to be a better way.”
The Peace Officers Research Association of California and the California State Sheriffs’ Association, two of the influential law enforcement organizations at the Capitol, did not return interview requests.
Lawmakers said their sway arises not just from aggressive lobbying, such as calling members on their cell phones on the floor during important votes, and generous campaign donations. Legislators worry about looking weak on crime and how that could be used against them in their next election. There is no real pressure from top officials, such as the governor or the attorney general, to counterbalance those forces.
Sen. Holly Mitchell, D-Los Angeles, also criticized the “deep bias” that allows the Legislature and law enforcement alike to overlook the experiences of people of color and why they feel police accountability measures are necessary. She wondered if many of them believe the shootings are justified because of an “inherent criminality” of black people.
“We can get stuck in our own life experience,” Mitchell said.
Even when the Legislature does pass a new law that police groups disagree with, the opposition does not necessarily subside.
An appellate court last year overturned Mitchell’s 2015 measure prohibiting grand juries from investigating police shootings after the California District Attorneys Association sued. Weber said multiple bills to weaken AB 953 have been circulated.
The national outcry over Clark, shot 20 times in his backyard by officers who thought the cellphone in his hand was a gun, raises the issue of police shootings again. Lawmakers said they were disturbed by footage of the incident that Sacramento police released this week, though they were unsure it would clear the way for any legislation.
“How many more public examples do we need to see before law enforcement is going to acknowledge there is a problem?” Mitchell said. “There’s just denial.”