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Heavyweight Los Angeles law firm to challenge Sacramento on police practices

How police shootings and protests are leading to reform measures

Sacramento police attended a critical incident training from the Police Executive Forum in December 2016 to learn better ways to diffuse incidents with mentally ill people and other critical incidents.
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Sacramento police attended a critical incident training from the Police Executive Forum in December 2016 to learn better ways to diffuse incidents with mentally ill people and other critical incidents.

Sacramento police-reform activists have retained a nationally renowned law firm to push for police accountability measures that go beyond what the City Council intends to pass Tuesday night, potentially as a launch pad for changes that go beyond the capital city.

The Law Enforcement Accountability Directive and its head, Sacramento attorney Mark Harris, have retained Los Angeles-based Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher LLP to pursue police reforms beyond those the City Council has proposed in recent days.

“It’s a very serious firm, and I’d take them very seriously,” said Kevin R. Johnson, dean of the UC Davis School of Law. Johnson added that the firm was “a bedrock of the legal community certainly in California.”

Gibson partner Marcellus McRae said Monday that his firm would “assist (the directive) in their efforts to negotiate reforms,” but declined to say how the firm would do that, or if it would involve litigation against the city.

McRae is a former federal prosecutor who also served as the deputy general counsel to the Citizens’ Commission on Jail Violence for Los Angeles County, which investigated deputy misconduct in local jails, according to a biography provided by the firm.

Harris declined to say what legal issues could be raised, but that “all measures will be considered, including litigation.”

Any litigation would likely not be tied to a particular instance of police misconduct, but would look at larger systemic issues within the department in regards to training and policy, he said.

Gibson Dunn has handled numerous high-profile cases and argued more than 100 cases before the U.S. Supreme Court.

In California, the firm won the initial 2014 verdict in Vergara v. California, suing on behalf of nine California students and charging that teacher tenure rules created a system biased against low-income and minority students. The decision was later reversed on appeal.

The firm also won the landmark case Perry v. Schwarzenegger in 2010, which deemed a voter-approved ban on same-sex marriage in California unconstitutional.

The Sacramento City Council is expected to pass a package of police reforms Tuesday, which emphasizes nonlethal interventions by police and the public release of video in officer-involved shootings.

But Harris said he believes the changes do not go far enough and are a “Band-Aid solution” to a problem that “has festered ... and is oozing over with pus.”

Harris said he retained Gibson Dunn on a pro bono basis to help determine what reforms are legally possible and to identify places where the city could take further action. One of the challenges for reforms is that there isn’t consensus about what the legal boundaries are for oversight, he said.

“It’s not as well settled as some people believe,” Harris said. “There may be some places where the city is willing to change ... We want the city to say we either can’t do that for this reason, or we won’t.”

Sacramento City Attorney James Sanchez said, “Gibson Dunn is a well-established law firm, and we welcome all points of view on this important topic.”

Harris said the firm would also likely conduct research on best practices for policing and law enforcement oversight that could be used nationally.

“This is the state capital of the largest state in the country, and what happens in California tends to spread,” he said. “We hope to have a full, complete model that will stand up for this city, this state and this country.”

Anita Chabria: 916-321-1049, @chabriaa

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