Capitol Alert

California cops and activists fought for competing use-of-force laws. Now they are linked

As tearful mothers and activists lined up in the Capitol to oppose a police training bill, they urged lawmakers to instead support a competing proposal that would make it easier to prosecute cops for questionable applications of deadly force.

What they didn’t know was that the two high-profile proposals that would recast rules for when police can use their weapons had already been changed in such a way that they depend on each other.

Now, the bill favored by police chiefs and unions that would require more training would become obsolete unless lawmakers also pass a more controversial bill that would raise the legal standard for officers to use deadly force.

“My bill is linked with hers,” said Sen. Anna Caballero, who sponsored the police-backed bill, referring to Assemblywoman Shirley Weber, who wrote the deadly force bill. “If her bill doesn’t get through, it all disappears. I don’t think any of us want this to disappear.”

The biggest change came when Caballero, D-Salinas, axed a provision in her Senate Bill 230 that outlined when an officer can legally employ deadly force. It reiterated the longstanding precedent that police can use force if other officers and supervisors consider their actions to be “reasonable.”

The deleted portion conflicted with the bulk of Weber’s Assembly Bill 392, which would overhaul the “reasonable” standard to a stricter “necessary” one. Lawmakers would have had to support one bill over the other because the two proposals created differing standards.

Now, they work together. Weber’s bill, if it passes, would change a legal standard. Caballero’s bill would support that change by providing policy guidelines and training for officers.

“AB 392 does not have a training component. It has the accountability piece,” Sen. Holly Mitchell, D-Los Angeles, said at a committee hearing Tuesday. “To look at these two bills together is a powerful, powerful combination from my perspective.”

Both proposals were seen as a chance to address how officers use force in California controversial police shootings of unarmed black and brown men in the state, including Stephon Clark in Sacramento in March 2018.

But before the amendments, SB 230 was considered the alternative, and less expansive, option that lawmakers could vote on to upgrade departments’ deadly force policies. It threatened to steal momentum from AB 392, which still faces challenges leaving the Assembly floor.

“The reason that I, as the committee chair, was willing to have a portion of SB 230 move forward is because if we do revise our use of force standard, then we will require new training,” said Sen. Nancy Skinner, D-Berkeley. “Because right now, the only training that our statewide agency offers is on the existing standard.”

There are concerns that AB 392 requires officers to exhaust all other alternatives — like de-escalation strategies and verbal warnings — before employing deadly force, a standard that law enforcement agencies have said is a subjective rule. By updating the state law, and not just reforming agency policies, AB 392 sets a uniform expectation that, if violated, exposes officers to criminal liability.

Weber earlier this month said her bill “prevents unnecessary deaths” by “clarifying law enforcement’s obligations.” Weber’s office confirmed that she’s in talks with law enforcement representatives on AB 392.

Supporters of Caballero’s original bill signaled compromise in an open letter penned on Monday by leaders of the organizations backing the bill, including the Peace Officers Research Association of California, the California Association of Highway Patrolmen and the California Police Chiefs Association.

“At a time when America is so deeply divided that progress appears out of the question, Californians must come together and rise above,” the letter read. “We must replace fear and anger with empathy and understanding. It’s an aspirational vision that is within reach.”

Though some committee members remained skeptical, others expressed optimism about the progression, a sentiment shared by legislative leaders.

“I’m grateful to Sen. Caballero and Sen. Skinner for agreeing to amendments that communicate clearly to everyone our goal: revise California’s use of force standard to protect both our communities and our peace officers and also ensure that officers get the training needed to make the change a success,” Senate President Pro Tem Toni Atkins, D-San Diego, released in a statement.

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.