Reform works, so why do police groups continue to resist necessary change?


Opponents of Assembly Bill 392 – which would reform the law governing the use of deadly force by police – often invoke this word as a solution to problems between citizens and police. Simply follow orders from police officers, the argument goes, and you won’t have a problem.

“We must teach our youth and others that compliance with laws and law enforcement minimizes violence and prevents the use of force by officers,” wrote Timothy Davis, president of the Sacramento Police Officers Association, in a recent op-ed in The Sacramento Bee.

“If they would just do what the nice police officer asks or tells them to do, they would not get shot or injured,” wrote John J. Robinson in a letter to The Bee.

Attorney General Xavier Becerra called out the compliance mentality in his recent report on the Sacramento Police Department. In the aftermath of the Stephon Clark shooting, Becerra’s office recommended that Sacramento police adopt a “‘guardian mindset’ toward residents that emphasizes cooperation with officers when possible over police demanding compliance.”

The argument for total compliance is familiar – and seriously flawed.

For one thing, citizens in a free and democratic society have the right to invoke their civil liberties. The 5th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution gives us the right to remain silent. The 4th Amendment protects us from unreasonable search and seizure. The 1st Amendment gives citizens the right to protest and allows journalists to report the truth.

This does not mean people should resist arrest or behave disruptively in dangerous situations. But the idea of blind obedience to authority is fundamentally at odds with American liberties.

It has also become increasingly clear that not every police officer deserves unquestioning trust and compliance. Some California police officers have engaged in crimes like child molestation, sexual assault, bank robbery and murder, according to records obtained by reporters under Senate Bill 1421.

The new law requires police departments to release the records of officers who engage in serious misconduct or criminal activity. The Sacramento Bee has joined with 32 other news organizations across the state to form the California Reporting Project in order to obtain records from California’s law enforcement agencies.

Police groups fought passage of SB 1421. Now that it is the law, many have chosen to defy it. Some even took the alarming step of destroying old records before the law took effect.

The revelations in these records make it clear why some wanted to keep them secret. California officers have committed some shocking crimes. The Bee, along with other news outlets across the state, will continue to expose these stories.

Most officers are good people who serve their communities. But the records released under SB 1421 make it clear that not everyone with a badge is a hero. That’s one big reason why we need AB 392, also known as the California Act to Save Lives.

Law enforcement groups strongly oppose the bill. Some have even labeled it a “cop killer” in an effort to scare legislators. Opponents claim it would endanger the public and harm officer safety. But these dramatic claims – the same exact claims they made against SB 1421 – fall apart under scrutiny. California legislators should ignore the fear tactics and support the bill.

Reformed use-of-force policies make everyone safer. Last week, Bee reporter Hannah Wiley wrote about the “culture shift” in three California cities that adopted use-of-force reforms: “In Los Angeles, police can’t always shoot at moving vehicles. San Francisco banned choke holds. Stockton officers are required to intervene if their colleagues use excessive force.”

All three cities reformed their policies after losing community trust or suffering major scandals involving police brutality. Contrary to the overwrought claims of AB 392’s opponents, reform did not cause the sky to fall. In fact, reform resulted in progress and improvement for both police and the communities they serve.

Stockton, for example, pursued reform “after years of topping the list of deadly force rates and having collected a litany of egregious force allegations against it,” according to The Bee.

Stockton police worked with the Urban Institute to create a procedural justice strategic plan that “puts fairness, transparency and impartiality at the forefront of every enforcement action.” Police in Los Angeles and San Francisco also pursued wide-ranging reforms.

The results?

In Stockton: “Murder rates and non-fatal shootings are down by more than 30 percent, and an increase in anonymous tips helped clear 67 percent of open homicide cases in 2018, the department said.”

In San Francisco, where police asked the United States Department of Justice to analyze its policing and make suggestions.: “Use-of-force incidents are down 30 percent and the department has already implemented more than 100 of the DOJ’s 272 recommendations.”

In Los Angeles: “A 2009 Harvard study determined that reducing force had no impact on crime rates in L.A., which decreased under the new policy.”

When Seattle police adopted more stringent rules as part of a federal consent decree, police use of force dropped “without officer injuries going up,” according to the United States Attorney’s Office for the Western District of Washington.

Reform works.

Sacramento police have also embarked on changes in the aftermath of the Stephon Clark killing. Last year, Sacramento Police Chief Daniel Hahn requested a state review of his department. The California Department of Justice conducted a review and recommended 49 reforms. Hahn has expressed a commitment to change.

Law enforcement groups working to stop AB 392 should follow the lead of the police chiefs who have embraced reform. We all want to keep our police officers safe. We can do that while also making our cities safer for citizens who come into contact with police.

With ample evidence of successful reform – and with a steady stream of police misconduct stories in the news thanks to SB 1421 – this seems like the wrong time for police groups to try to bully lawmakers into abandoning AB 392.

One way or another, the deadly force law must change. Instead of using fear to try to force legislators into compliance with their demands, law enforcement groups should consider a new strategy. Sometimes, conversation and cooperation provide the best path forward.