Although the officers who killed Stephon Clark won’t face charges, his death could lead to a new use-of-force standard for police in California.
Top lawmakers and the governor say the law should change, although most haven’t endorsed specific proposals.
Discussions are unfolding at the Capitol as demonstrators march through the streets of Sacramento, protesting decisions not to indict the two police officers who shot Clark last year.
The Clark case “will have a big role,” Assemblyman Kevin McCarty, a Sacramento Democrat, said. “It’s a worldwide story, and the people have seen the images with their own eyes. They see that there probably was an alternative to utilizing non deadly force.”
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Lawmakers are weighing competing proposals to change use-of-force standards. One bill would restrict when officers can shoot to kill. Another would simply require police departments to have a use-of-force policy.
Senior lawmakers have not endorsed a bill, but the governor, the Assembly speaker and the Senate president are on the record supporting some kind of new policy.
“This must be a time for change,” Gov. Gavin Newsom said after Sacramento County’s district attorney announced she wouldn’t charge the officers. “We need to acknowledge the hard truth – our criminal justice system treats young black and Latino men and women differently than their white counterparts. That must change.”
Senate President Pro Tem Toni Atkins said she “remained committed more than ever before to working on California’s law enforcement use-of-force standard.”
Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon urged his colleagues to not “just nibble at the edges of what is a systemic problem” but to “change policies on the use of force in order to protect unarmed Californians as well as law enforcement officers.
Attorney General Xavier Becerra also suggested he’d favor a new approach. On Tuesday, he released an investigation that cleared the officers who killed Clark of criminal wrongdoing but said he would work to prevent future tragedies.
“We must all be willing to write the next chapters in this story of what we call American justice,” Becerra said during his announcement of the investigation’s findings Tuesday.
He promised to engage with lawmakers on proposals to change the law surrounding police use of force, although he declined to give his opinion about what specifically should change.
‘Reasonable’ or ‘necessary?’
Clark, 22, was among 115 people police shot in California last year, according to 2018 data collected by The Washington Post. California officers averaged more shootings per capita than states like Alabama, New York and Illinois.
The officers said they thought Clark was armed when they shot him in his grandparents’ backyard. But when they searched his body, they found only a cellphone.
One legislative proposal that’s already drawing criticism from law enforcement would let officers use deadly force only when there are no other options, a standard that would make it easier to criminally charge officers who kill suspects or bystanders.
Today, officers can use lethal force if their actions are considered “reasonable” in the circumstances they face. The bill would change the threshold from “reasonable” to “necessary.”
That plan, Assembly Bill 392, which McCarty coauthored with Assemblywoman Shirley Weber, could become a “road map” for other states and jurisdictions to update their own laws. It’s sure to draw intense criticism from law enforcement.
“This is not some wild idea that’s academic,” McCarty said. The bill would “force departments up and down the state of California to focus on trainings and de-escalation tactics, crisis intervention and alternative policing methods.”
Sen. Anna Caballero, D-Salinas, has also introduced Senate Bill 230 as a compromise bill between Weber’s legislation and officer concerns. The bill, sponsored by the California Police Chiefs Association, mandates law enforcement agencies have a policy that provides use-of-force guidelines.
In a statement following Saturday’s announcement, the Legislative Black Caucus called SB 230 “counterfeit reform” that does “nothing more than perpetuate the deadly status quo.”
“There’s a version somewhere in the middle and how we get there will be important,” Caballero said. “I just want to be able to have a discussion, and it becomes difficult to have a conversation when people are throwing stones.”
Newsom won’t endorse a bill yet
Former Senate president and current Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg endorsed the Weber-McCarty bill on Saturday. The governor stopped short of adding his official support to AB 392.
“I’m going to be very hesitant to get into the details of bills as they’re introduced,” Newsom said on Tuesday. “I want to be helpful in the process of bringing those bills across the finish line.”
AB 392 is modeled after local ordinances in cities like Seattle and San Francisco. Both cities updated use-of-force tactics with guidance from U.S. Department of Justice’s.
After Clark’s death prompted oversight of the Sacramento Police Department, Becerra released a report in January 2019 on his use-of-force recommendations for the agency. His report repeatedly cites Seattle as a policy leader.
Becerra’s office recommends sweeping changes at the department, including clearly defining when officers can use force and doing more to defuse situations that could escalate into deadly encounters.
In Seattle, officers are under tight use-of-force restrictions and are required to file more frequent reports when they use force, such as when they point a gun at someone
Since making those changes, the department reported an 11 percent decrease in incidents of force from 2014 to 2016. Studies on the new standard show there’s no connection between scaled-back use-of-force and threats to public safety and increased crime rates.
Weber tabled a bill similar to AB 392 last year after it failed to garner enough support in the Legislature. Law enforcement groups said raising the standard for when police can fire their weapons would endanger communities by discouraging officers from confronting threatening people.
Weber said she ran out of time last year to resolve lawmakers’ concerns about the bill. She has since criticized law enforcement’s lobbying against it. Law enforcement groups that opposed the bill spent more than $1.8 million last year lobbying on it and other measures.
“Our efforts met with disproportionate resistance, gross misrepresentation and scare tactics by law-enforcement lobbyists who wield undue influence in the Legislature,” she said.