California Legislature seeks to curb police violence

Attorney General Kamala Harris takes the oath of Attorney General in the courtyard at the Crocker Art Museum in Sacramento on January 5, 2015.
Attorney General Kamala Harris takes the oath of Attorney General in the courtyard at the Crocker Art Museum in Sacramento on January 5, 2015.

After a year in which the use of lethal force by police officers spurred nationwide protests and bared outrage about the intersection of race and law enforcement in America, California legislators have returned to Sacramento determined to pass laws blunting police violence.

“It will be probably the No. 1,” public safety issue, said Assemblyman Reggie Jones-Sawyer, D-Los Angeles, who chairs the Legislative Black Caucus. “We addressed gun use last year, and we took it on aggressively, and I think this year the Legislature will take on police accountability, police violence and better ways of protecting the residents of California.”

Bills already in the pipeline would equip more police officers with body cameras that record encounters, collect comprehensive data on how often officers wound or kill suspects, train officers to better deal with the mentally ill, and institute third-party reviews of police shootings. Members have discussed addressing grand jury proceedings, a legal tool that has drawn immense scrutiny after successive panels did not indict officers who killed Michael Brown and Eric Garner, respectively.

“It’s long overdue,” said Alice Huffman, president of the California NAACP. “It’s unfortunate that it took something like Ferguson to get this momentum going, but it’s very fortunate that people are now focused on it.”

Demonstrating the issue’s prominence, California Attorney General Kamala Harris used her inauguration as a platform to spotlight a “crisis of confidence” as some communities seethe with distrust of law enforcement and endure “the sting of injustice.” She called for a review of training in bias and the use of force.

“California law enforcement has a unique opportunity to lead the way for the entire nation,” said Harris, who is African American. “As a daughter of Brown v. Board of Education, and the civil rights movement, I know we can make progress.”

For now, the law enforcement groups that project a formidable presence in Sacramento are not staking out a position. A spokesman for the Peace Officers Research Association said commenting would be premature.

“There’s going to be a whole host of bills in this subject matter area, and we frankly look forward to actively and collaboratively engaging with members,” said John Lovell, a senior policy adviser to the California Police Chiefs Association.

African American officials call the matter deeply personal. Being a judge did not stop Assemblywoman Shirley Weber’s late husband from being “thrown against a wall” with a group of black attorneys and questioned in connection with a robbery, in the San Diego Democrat’s recounting. She invoked the ritual of black parents instructing their sons on how to use deliberate caution and respect when talking to the police.

“As long as I have to tell my son he doesn’t enjoy the same rights as everyone else, then I am not a first class citizen,” Weber said.

“The vast majority of peace officers are good people – we have them in our family, they’re our friends,” Weber added, “but a police officer also has awesome power and, as a result, one or two bad actors can really wreak havoc on a community or a state.”

Body cameras could help defuse encounters with police officers, proponents say, and would offer a clear record of what happened when violence erupts. Weber has legislation that would create guidelines around how such cameras are used. Other bills seek to purchase more cameras with matching grants or to require police officers across the state to use the devices.

“We believe that if we have transparency, we will protect police officers and we will protect all citizens,” Jones-Sawyer said.

One obstacle to transparency cited by policymakers and advocates is the lack of a centralized statewide database tracking how often police officers kill suspects. Assemblyman Freddie Rodriguez, D-Pomona, is carrying a bill that would have local police chiefs and sheriffs inform the Department of Justice every time a shooting wounds or kills either a police officer or a suspect.

“I think we’re missing a lot of what’s going on out there – we’re only hearing about a small percentage,” Rodriguez said. “I want to see how we can get a statewide database and we can look at it and maybe help with training or educating that, you know what, maybe there’s a trend of officer-involved shootings.”

Far more contentious are questions about how police officers are judged after they use lethal force. The non-indictments of the officers who killed Brown and Garner revived longstanding questions about who polices the police.

In the view of Assemblyman Kevin McCarty, D-Sacramento, local district attorneys should not be the only ones handling those investigations. He has a bill that would have a Department of Justice panel review police shootings – a necessity, McCarty said, given the relationships between police departments and prosecutors.

“The county DA’s, they’re so linked with the police brass,” McCarty said in an interview. “In my view, there would be more trust in the integrity of the overall conclusion if it was independent, from a third party.”

Grand juries are also earning a closer look. Defense attorneys do not attend grand jury hearings, where a prosecutor is solely responsible for presenting evidence for and against proceeding with criminal charges. Unlike in other preliminary hearings, it is a jury, not a judge, deciding if there is enough evidence to go to trial. The proceedings are secret while they are occurring.

“I think it needs to be public,” Weber said. “I think any time a person is killed or shot there needs to be a public discussion of it. That’s not the grand jury.”

Yet while the cases in New York and Missouri have focused attention on grand juries, California prosecutors rarely use them, according to California District Attorneys Association head Mark Zahner. He argued that tighter evidence rules, the need to convince a jury and the requirement that prosecutors present exculpatory evidence make the panels “much more burdensome for a prosecutor” than seeking an indictment directly from a judge.

“I don’t think there’s a need to run off with a knee-jerk reaction in California because other jurisdictions have had issues,” Zahner said. “How the grand jury happens in California is far different than how it happens federally, how it happens in Missouri and Florida.”

Civil liberties advocates have also been talking to lawmakers about carrying legislation that would illuminate how police departments handle misconduct allegations brought by members of the public, including whether and why officers are disciplined. Misconduct complaints can range from officers using racial slurs to beating suspects.

“California has about the most secretive laws in the country,” said Natasha Minsker, head of American Civil Liberties Union of California’s Center for Advocacy and Policy. “It’s difficult – I would say impossible – to build trust between the public and law enforcement if you don’t have accountability and if you don’t know if complaints are being taken seriously.”

One Assembly member with a background in law enforcement urged restraint. Assemblyman Jim Cooper, D-Elk Grove, who rose to the rank of captain in the Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department, said private citizens can be quick to judge after fatal shootings.

“We need to be very careful,” Cooper said. “California, and Sacramento specifically, is not the rest of the country. We have a lot of rules and regulations and requirements, and officers have a lot of training now.”

Debates over police violence tend to flare after individual shootings and then recede, Cooper said, while the underlying issues persist: crime, scarce economic opportunity and a lack of resources for youths.

“Sometimes it’s like law enforcement is an occupying army in these areas where the violence and the drug dealing occurs,” Cooper said. “The elephant in the room is the socioeconomic thing – fix that and you’re going to fix a whole host of issues. Long term, we haven’t really addressed the issues.”

Call Jeremy B. White, Bee Capitol Bureau, (916) 326-5543.

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