Faced with a heavy political lift in the final week of the legislative session, supporters of a major push to limit when California police can legally use lethal force have removed a provision making it easier to prosecute officers.
Assembly Bill 931, which tightens the state standard for deadly force from “reasonable” to “necessary,” was diverted back to committee last week to avoid a pending deadline and give advocates more time to negotiate a compromise proposal. Law enforcement organizations have sharply criticized AB 931 as a risk to officers’ lives and mounted an intense lobbying campaign against the bill.
The changes, which would still require police agencies to update their internal guidelines to meet the new standard, does not represent a deal with law enforcement. Backers still expect opposition to the proposal, but believe it now has a better chance to pass before the Legislature adjourns for the year next Friday.
“It removes the idea that we’re just out there to get cops,” said Assemblywoman Shirley Weber, a San Diego Democrat who is carrying the bill. “The angst was there.”
Critics argue the current standard for using lethal force – which considers whether a “reasonable” officer in similar circumstances would have acted the same way – is too broad, legitimizing the fear that can sometimes cause police to act abruptly without first trying to deescalate a conflict.
AB 931 establishes that law enforcement is only justified in killing a suspect when they have no “reasonable alternatives” to reduce the threat and prevent the death or serious injury of themselves or another person. It also takes into account how the officer’s actions contributed to the outcome.
The bill is an effort to address police shootings that disproportionately affect minority communities. It was introduced in the wake of the March shooting of Stephon Clark in south Sacramento, who was killed after being chased into his grandmother’s backyard. Police said they thought Clark had a gun, but later determined he was holding a cellphone.
The measure originally scaled back when officers could use “justifiable homicide” as a legal defense, so that they could be held liable if they had acted with “criminal negligence” — essentially, with disregard for human life — in killing a civilian. That language has been taken out, though it would not preclude the use of the stricter standard in civil lawsuits.
Lizzie Buchen, a lobbyist for the American Civil Liberties Union of California, one of AB 931’s sponsors, rejected the notion that it had been significantly watered down, because adopting a new standard for use of deadly force would still require a shift in police training. Officers who violate the standard could still be disciplined or fired by their agencies, which she said would act as a deterrent.
Local jurisdictions such as Seattle that have adopted similar use-of-force policies, she added, have been successful in reducing police killings.
“We’re trying to make sure California’s standard for officers using force is the gold standard,” Buchen said.
Another measure the ACLU is pursuing this session, Senate Bill 1421, which requires greater public disclosure of investigations into police shootings and other uses of lethal force, would provide additional accountability if passed.
Law enforcement groups have been reluctant to negotiate over a change to the use-of-force standard that they contend would cause police to second-guess their actions and pull back from proactively confronting threats. Last week, they brought a simulator to the basement of the Capitol, allowing lawmakers and staff to test how they would handle a confrontation with an armed suspect.
But the California Police Chiefs Association, in conjunction with several officer unions, this week offered a substitute for AB 931 that would have instead required agencies statewide to adopt use-of-force guidelines incorporating de-escalation tactics, how to interact with vulnerable populations such as the mentally ill, and intervening to stop another officer from using excessive force, among other new standards. The proposal was based on the Seattle Police Department and other agencies held up as models by advocates of the bill, according to a cover letter for the amendments.
The Los Angeles Police Protective League, the labor union for the Los Angeles Police Department, on Friday slammed Weber for ignoring the police chiefs’ language and moving ahead with her own changes without consulting law enforcement.
“Once again, Dr. Webber (sic), the ACLU and other anti-police fringe groups are choosing to push falsehoods to the media as opposed to having a fact-based discussion about the dire implications of their proposals, proposals that will undermine the safety of law enforcement professionals and the public across California,” the league’s board of directors said in a statement.