Capitol Alert

‘Impossible standard?’ Police oppose it, but California use-of-force bill advances

Lawmakers, mothers speak out in favor of police use of force bill AB 392

In the wake of the Stephon Clark shooting, Assembly 392 aims to raise the standard under which officers can discharge their firearms. It faced a major test April 9, 2019, in the Assembly Committee on Public Safety.
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In the wake of the Stephon Clark shooting, Assembly 392 aims to raise the standard under which officers can discharge their firearms. It faced a major test April 9, 2019, in the Assembly Committee on Public Safety.

Mothers, brothers, sisters and friends of police shooting victims showed up at the Capitol on Tuesday — wearing t-shirts with their loved ones’ names, their organizations’ slogans and “Let us Live” hats — to tearfully share their stories and send a message to California lawmakers: Pass Assembly Bill 392.

“Police know the magic words. ‘I fear for my life,’” said one mother whose son was shot and killed by police.

“This was my son who was executed in Stockton, California,” another woman cried out, holding up a photo of her child.

The raw, emotional testimony played out at a Committee on Public Safety hearing, where AB 392 cleared its first hurdle in a 5-2 vote.

The officer use-of-force bill updates the current “reasonable” deadly force standard to “necessary,” and would make it easier to file criminal charges against officers who use lethal force if other enforcement options are available. It’s a proposal that supporters say is “squarely in line with best practices.” Critics argue that it creates “an impossible standard.”

The bill’s main author, Assemblywoman Shirley Weber, D-San Diego, said AB 392, known as the California Act to Save Lives, prevents “unnecessary deaths” by “clarifying law enforcement’s obligations.” Weber’s team said the legislation would push officers to rely on de-escalation techniques like verbal persuasion and crisis intervention methods instead of lethal force, which would better protect the lives of black and brown Californians who are disproportionately shot and killed by police.

Weber pulled a similar bill during session last year after conversations with law enforcement failed to end in compromise. She updated the bill this year to clarify that officers can use deadly force in the face of imminent danger.

The proposal is backed by dozens of organizations across the state and has earned staunch public support after the death of Stephon Clark in Sacramento launched the bill into the limelight.

Clark, an unarmed black man, was shot by police in March 2018 after officers responded to a car burglary call. Officers chased Clark into his grandparents’ backyard, though they did not know his family lived in the home, and fired after mistaking his cell phone for a gun.

Protests erupted in March 2019 following the Sacramento County district attorney’s decision not to indict the officers, and attention turned to passing AB 392.

Opponents of the measure brought their own anecdotal evidence and legal language in an effort to convince the committee to reject it.

Shane LaVigne, a lobbyist for the California Fraternal Order of Police, said AB 392 creates an “impossible standard” and that officers often face “tense, uncertain and rapidly evolving” life and death situations.

“The problem is the standard would be applied in hindsight,” LaVigne said, continuing that the bill creates a standard that requires “superhuman decision making that is simply not possible.”

Those testifying on behalf of police said officers would be vulnerable to hindsight analysis and that it’s hard to identify other options in critical moments when there’s immediate danger.

“That hesitation will result in a loss of life,” said Republican Assemblyman Tom Lackey of Palmdale, who said he would not support the bill. “And I don’t think anyone wants that.”

“In addition to creating tremendous and routinely life-threatening risk to peace officers, AB 392 could discourage proactive policing,” the bill analysis cited the California State Sheriffs’ Association as saying. “Fearing repercussions ranging from employee discipline to criminal prosecution based on this new standard, it is possible that officers who today would purposefully put themselves in harm’s way to do their job might tomorrow decline to act.”

The hearing lasted nearly three hours, with crowds of individuals overflowing from the committee room into the halls lining up to share why they support or denounce the bill and urging lawmakers to vote accordingly.

Through tears, Assemblywoman Sydney Kamlager-Dove, D-Los Angeles, said she would support the bill, citing her experience as a stepmother to black children.

“I don’t want any of us to live in fear,” Kamlager-Dove said.

“Not you, not your team,” she said to the police organizations, then turning to AB 392’s supporters. “And not these communities right here.”

Though the bill cleared the first legislative obstacle, AB 392 faces an uphill battle.

A police-backed measure, Senate Bill 230, could provide an alternative for legislators who are on the fence about the strictness of AB 392. SB 230 would require law enforcement agencies to have a policy that provides use-of-force guidelines and reiterates the importance of training.

The Senate bill is considered a potential compromise between stakeholders, all of whom “are traumatized,” said the chair of the public safety committee, Assemblyman Reggie Jones-Sawyer, D-Los Angeles.

Jones-Sawyer had to call the room to order several times throughout the testimony and urged Weber and the opposition to continue talking about making the bill best for both sides.

“Get rid of all the pain and talk about how we can stop future pain,” he said. “Because that’s what I see not only here, but with law enforcement and with this audience. “I hear from both sides that you want to get there. It’s just a question of how.”

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Hannah Wiley joined The Bee as a legislative reporter in 2019. She produces the morning newsletter for Capitol Alert and previously reported on immigration, education and criminal justice. She’s a Chicago-area native and a graduate of Saint Louis University and Northwestern.
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