‘Who protects us?’ Activists push for stricter rules on police use of deadly force
Gov. Jerry Brown has been mostly silent about the March 18 shooting death of Stephon Clark, the unarmed black man killed by Sacramento police that has renewed a national conversation about police misconduct and excessive use of force.
The Democratic governor hasn't commented publicly on Clark's death, but issued a statement in response to inquiries from to The Sacramento Bee, calling the death "tragic" that "raises a number of very serious questions."
But candidates vying to succeed him are speaking out about change. The high-profile shooting has sparked calls from some Democrats to change long-standing California law that protects police conduct in officer-involved shootings, while others say the state's tight restrictions on public access to law enforcement personnel records should be loosened to help illuminate past instances of discipline of excessive use of force — especially in misconduct investigations.
Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, a Democrat and the front-runner in the crowded race to succeed Brown, said on Twitter four days after the shooting that, "It's time to acknowledge some hard truths — a suspect that looks like me would still be alive. Stephon isn't. That must change."
Newsom told The Sacramento Bee this week that "regardless of what more we may learn about what happened that evening, the end result was unacceptable and unworthy of a just society."
"This is a terrible tragedy but it's also an urgent moment to make change — systemic reform which reduces inequities and increases community confidence in our criminal justice system," Newsom said in an email. "I support independent investigations into use-of-force cases. We need de-escalation and implicit bias training. We need to bolster proven community police programs and diversity hiring programs that strengthen bonds between law enforcement and the communities they serve ..."
Former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, a Democrat who has the endorsement of California law enforcement unions representing police chiefs and rank-and-file officers, was less specific.
"We need to be honest and acknowledge that too many young black men are being shot and killed," he said in an emailed statement. "This must stop, and this must change. The loss of Stephon Clark is a tragic reminder that these issues have not been resolved — but we have a moral obligation to demand change by acknowledging it, addressing it and fixing it."
Villaraigosa has the endorsement from Assemblywoman Shirley Weber, a San Diego Democrat leading a move in the Legislature to change use-of-force rules for law enforcement and allow officers to be disciplined or criminally charged for failing to consider alternatives before shooting.
Delaine Eastin, also a Democrat and the former state schools chief, says California must rethink the California Peace Officers' Bill of Rights, a series of laws that strictly limit public disclosure of past misconduct, which can undermine activist demands for transparency and accountability.
"It should be reviewed to make sure it's not shielding bad apples," Eastin said in an interview. "It makes me very uncomfortable to hear when people have been fired from other police forces that they've been re-hired somewhere else because we have a … shortage."
"I'm not saying we don't need to be protective of our police," she said. "But if the protection is so extreme that we do not expose people who are exceeding their authority and hurting the public at large, then it needs adjustment. The public interest has to come first."
Democrats John Chiang, the state treasurer, and Amanda Renteria, Hillary Clinton's former national political director, are both calling for a larger conversation into use of force and how investigations are handled.
"As a state, we must rethink the way we police, from where and how we recruit officers, to the training we provide them," Chiang said in a statement. "From ensuring de-escalation is the first step, not an afterthought, to providing police departments with the tools necessary to do the job right. Ultimately, we need to have a real conversation about the root of this problem and why Black Lives Matter."
Chiang said he supports independent investigations, but declined to say whether he'd support any changes to California laws protecting police during officer-involved shootings.
"I want to make sure that at the end of the day, justice is done ... I've always been a strong supporter in openness and transparency," Chiang said in an interview. "I don't want people making snap judgments based on things that haven't been thoroughly investigated."
Renteria said "listening" is the most important thing a governor can do during a time of deep unrest and amid racial tensions.
"Welcoming public input into our process right now is critical to restoring public trust in our institutions," Renteria said in an interview. "Analyzing use-of-force, for instance, can help and make all of us better at working in communities of color. I suspect that's where we're going ... People want more transparency not less."
Assemblyman Travis Allen, one of two Republicans in the race, said laws protecting police should be strengthened, not weakened.
"We must absolutely back the badge," Allen said. "The demonization of law enforcement does absolutely nothing to keep our communities safe. It only undermines law enforcement's ability to effectively do their job and enforce our laws."
Allen said the shooting of Clark is justified.
"This has nothing to do with racism," he said. "This has everything to do with someone who was intentionally trying to evade police and not complying with law enforcement instructions to show his hands. ... this has nothing to do with the color of skin. It has everything to do with his actions."
Police told Clark to "show us your hands," before firing more than 20 rounds and killing him, according to body camera footage. Police said the two officers thought Clark had a gun, but it was a cellphone. It is unknown if Clark was the subject of the original 911 call about a man allegedly breaking car windows. A Sacramento County Sheriff's Department helicopter located him in a nearby backyard and reported he had used a "toolbar" to break a window there.
Activists and African American leaders dispute the notion that the shooting death of Clark has nothing to do with racism. Black Lives Matter leaders have said it reflects implicit bias and the culture of policing in America.
John Cox, the other Republican in the race, declined an interview but said in a statement that "whenever we are confronted with a terrible tragedy like this, emotions are raw and pain is real. What we should all hope for is some good will come from this.
"I think everyone's focus should be on trying to repair broken relationships to restore trust and make our communities safer," Cox said.
Editor's Note: This story was updated April 5, 2018, to include comments from Cox and Villaraigosa, who initially declined to comment.