Capitol Alert

California has a new use-of-force law. What does it mean for cops and people of color?

California’s new law governing when law enforcement officers can use deadly force is among the strongest in the country restricting when police officers can pull the trigger.

Below is a guide to questions you might have about the law.

When can police shoot?

Prior to the new law, California police officers could use deadly force if their actions were considered “reasonable.” It’s a standard that dates to 1872, and it has frustrated activists who wanted to see prosecutions of cops after shootings of unarmed people.

The new standard restricts lethal force to when it is “necessary in defense of human life” as perceived by a “reasonable” officer and based on the “totality of circumstances.” It also emphasizes deescalation as an effective alternative to lethal force.

If questioned, officers will have to prove there is an “imminent threat of death or serious bodily injury,” and they’ll be evaluated based on the facts they knew leading up to the deadly action.

“The bottom line is that deadly force should only be used when absolutely necessary,” Gov. Gavin Newsom said in a written statement after he signed the law.

How did we get here?

The journey to Newsom’s signature follows a slew of deadly shootings by California police in recent years, including the March 2018 death of Stephon Clark in Sacramento.

Clark, a 22-year-old black man, was shot and killed in his grandmother’s backyard after police said they mistook the cell phone in his hand for a gun.

Assemblywoman Shirley Weber, D-San Diego, responded to Clark’s death with a 2018 bill to crack down on deadly force, though the year ended amid stalled negotiations with law enforcement.

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Despite the setback, Weber reintroduced her bill at the start of the 2019 session and a month before Sacramento County District Attorney Anne Marie Schubert decided in March not to indict the officers who killed Clark.

She accepted changes to the bill that won support from its foes, including police chiefs and law enforcement unions. At the bill signing ceremony Monday, Weber said the departure of former Gov. Jerry Brown and the swearing in of Gov. Gavin Newsom earlier this year was also a key factor in the bill’s eventual passage. Newsom, she said, was much more amenable to the idea of updating the standard.

Will cops face prosecution?

To get the bill through the Legislature, Weber accepted amendments that eliminated provisions that would have made it easier to prosecute officers.

It still gives some power to courts to decide if an officer’s application of force is justifiable, but it’s unclear if more officers will face criminal charges because of the new law.

We don’t know what the standard is yet that’s going to come out of AB 392,” said Sacramento attorney Mark T. Harris. “We’ll know after a few cases, after a few more people are killed.”

Harris added that he thinks officers have already responded to public pressure and are adjusting their tactics.

“Law enforcement, for the most part, is very sensitive to the fact that they’ve come under the microscope,” he said. “We’re hoping that all these efforts are making law enforcement more responsible to the community.”

Will officers get new training?

A companion bill in the Senate would require every law enforcement agency to revise its policies, and would hand the Commission on Peace Officer Standards and Training up to $450,000 to develop new training guidelines.

The state’s leading law enforcement unions are backing the proposal, and released a press statement on Monday urging the Legislature to pass Senate Bill 230.

“With the passage of the AB 392 and SB 230 legislative package, California will go further than any other state in the country to provide our officers with the tools and training they have requested and deserve,” said Rick LaBeske, president of the California Association of Highway Patrolmen, in the news release.

Newsom also said the training will be critical to ensuring AB 392’s success.

“Now we need to make sure we implement and apply the law in a way that does justice to what we were promoting,” he said. “And again, that goes into training, that goes into deep commitments at the local level, every academy class and every training officer, making sure that they have the resources they need.”

Are minorities safer?

Weber, who is African American, said AB 392 was inspired by long history of brutality against people of color.

“For 400 years, people of color have often had a different kind of justice than others in this nation,” she said. “After 400 years of demonstrating our commitment and humanity to this nation, we deserve fairness and justice.”

Alameda County District Attorney Nancy E. O’Malley said the bill also underscores how best to police people with disabilities and mental illness.

But some of the bill’s original backers, including Black Lives Matter, withdrew their support after the legislation was “so significantly amended.”

Although he said he believes AB 392 will ultimately save lives, Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg said he doesn’t know if it would have prevented Clark’s death if it had been in place at the time.

Lawmakers at Monday’s signing, including top Democratic leadership, acknowledged that AB 392 was only a first step toward reform.

“This law is not a magic fix for the racial tensions that are endemic to our country,” said Senate President Pro Tem Toni Atkins, D-San Diego. “But it does send a clear message that California is taking action and actively pursuing legislation to improve the safety of all of our communities. Especially our communities of color.”

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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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