Civil rights groups blast weakening of police shootings bill
Civil-rights activists on Tuesday demanded that California take more aggressive action to combat police shootings of African Americans and other minorities.
Frustrated by what they say has been an overly cautious response to a pressing problem, representatives from the National Action Network, the local chapter of the NAACP and other community groups lambasted state lawmakers that “lack the courage” to increase oversight of law enforcement agencies. They were joined by the brother of Joseph Mann, whose death at the hands of two officers last July sparked community outrage and new police accountability measures in Sacramento.
“Until we get the justice we deserve, as a culture, as a race, as people of the United States, we’re not going to rest,” Robert Mann said.
The activists gathered at the Capitol to voice their displeasure over recent changes to a proposal that would have created an independent unit within the state Department of Justice to investigate police shootings and recommend whether to press charges. Assembly Bill 284 was scaled back last week to require a study of such incidents over the past two years; the final report, proponents said, can be used to determine what new policies are needed.
Attorney General Xavier Becerra joined Assemblyman Kevin McCarty, a Sacramento Democrat who authored AB 284, to support the bill as it passed the Senate Public Safety Committee on Tuesday. Becerra said investigations of officer-involved shootings should largely stay local. By conducting the comprehensive study, however, he believes the state can help address the root causes of these shootings, rather than simply reacting to them.
“We’re sort of walking with a blindfold on in how to deal with this,” Becerra said. “We have to make sure the investigations in any incident are thorough and lead to justice. But we also have to try to figure out how we can prevent incidents from occurring that leave some families without loved ones.”
The Rev. Shane Harris, president of National Action Network San Diego, rejected that approach as a “slap in the face.” He compared local district attorneys investigating the law enforcement agencies they routinely work with on other cases to a “student grading his own paper.”
Harris added that he would rather see AB 284 fail than be “gutted” for political expediency. He pressed McCarty to add the creation of an independent review unit back into his bill, and questioned why lawmakers have not treated the issue with the same urgency as other priorities this session.
“We didn’t need a research plan for immigration,” he said. “But we need a research plan for policing?”
The high-profile deaths of black men, many of them unarmed, by law enforcement in recent years sparked a national outcry from civil-rights groups over how policing is conducted in minority communities, particularly as few of the cases resulted in charges or convictions.
While the Sacramento County District Attorney’s Office cleared the two officers who killed Mann of legal wrongdoing, his family has disputed the necessity of using lethal force to subdue him. Mann was shot 18 times, after the police attempted twice to run him down with their cruiser.
The officers said Mann, who carried a knife and had methamphetamine in his system, posed a danger to them and neighborhood residents. But his family and community activists asserted that their actions unnecessarily escalated tensions with a man who suffered from mental illness. In February, the city of Sacramento settled a civil lawsuit over Mann’s death for $719,000.
Cory Salzillo, legislative director for the California State Sheriffs’ Association, said legislation such as AB 248 has “cast a shadow” that “something is amiss with the way that officer-involved shootings and use of force are currently investigated.” He said officers feel increasing pressure that they are “not doing enough” as lawmakers pursue more bills to add reporting requirements and make other changes to their jobs.
“There are procedures in place and protocols in place to deal with those alleged violations,” Salzillo said.
Another recent proposal, Assembly Bill 748, would expand public access to body camera footage by compelling law enforcement agencies to release video or audio recordings that depict an officer shooting a suspect or other matters of public concern. Assemblyman Phil Ting, D-San Francisco, has said the measure aims to improve community trust of police by increasing transparency.
Video-release policies vary greatly from department to department, and law enforcement groups believe it should stay that way.
“They’re the ones who have to deal with how that’s going to impede an investigation, how that’s going to affect the prosecution,” Edward Medrano, president of the California Police Chiefs Association, said.