After Ferguson, our lawmakers seek answers

Protesters shout in New York’s Times Square in December after it was announced that the New York City police officer involved in the death of Eric Garner was not being indicted.
Protesters shout in New York’s Times Square in December after it was announced that the New York City police officer involved in the death of Eric Garner was not being indicted. The Associated Press

The demonstrations last year against police violence sparked by the deaths of unarmed civilians in Ferguson, Mo., and New York City are over. But their spirit lives on in California’s Capitol.

There’s a bill by Pomona Assemblyman Freddie Rodriguez that would require police to report annually to the California Department of Justice when an officer is shot or when an officer shoots someone, not just when someone dies in custody.

Another bill, by Sen. Holly Mitchell, D-Los Angeles, would prohibit the use of grand juries to determine whether to file charges in excessive-use-of-force investigations. There is other legislation that’s related too, involving body cameras for police and training.

One bill, AB 86 by Sacramento Assemblyman Kevin McCarty, would fundamentally alter how investigations of officer-involved deaths are conducted by creating some sort of independent law enforcement review panel.

Typically, when someone dies at the hands of police, the local district attorney will handle the case and decide whether to prosecute. Since prosecutors and police officers are essentially colleagues, it raises questions about whether investigators are as impartial as they ought to be.

McCarty was inspired by the story of Michael Bell, a father in Wisconsin whose 21-year-old son was shot point-blank in the head during a drunken scuffle with police officers in 2004. The case was dismissed, as virtually all are, after a cursory examination by department investigators.

The officers were held liable in a civil suit, and the Bell family was awarded $1.75 million, which Michael Bell used to finance a campaign to reform the way officer-involved deaths are handled.

It took about 10 years, but his persistence won over the Wisconsin Legislature and Republican Gov. Scott Walker, who signed a bill last year requiring an independent review panel.

AB 86 is little more than a sketch at the moment, so it’s impossible to judge its merits. McCarty said he kept the language vague so the details could be filled in during the hearing process as legislators, law enforcement and civil rights advocates debate the concept.

The legislation will face opposition from law enforcement agencies and their allies. The California Peace Officers’ Association has taken a position against AB 86, despite its lack of detail.

Sacramento County Sheriff Scott Jones, a vice president of the peace officers association, is concerned about changing the current system to fix a “perceived social wrong.” And he’s wary of reform that hands decisions about police procedure over to a politically appointed panel, even if such panels were to include former law enforcement officials.

Perhaps he’s right, but the debate ought to be healthy. Law enforcement absolutely must be involved in the discussion, which won’t happen if they just say no.

The vast majority of officer-involved shootings are justified. But legislators have a responsibility to make sure that police are monitored.

Sacramento County District Attorney Anne Marie Schubert is doing her part by reviving the process of sending investigators out to the scenes of officer-involved deaths.

There may well be more legislation on the topic before the Friday filing deadline. If so, we’d especially like to see a bill that improves data collection of incidents in which people die in custody. Data on this topic are spotty, which has dismayed even law enforcement officials.

After the riots broke out in Ferguson last year, FBI Director James Comey asked for data about how many African Americans were shot by police in the U.S.

“They couldn’t give it to me, and it wasn’t their fault,” he said in a Feb. 12 speech. “Demographic data regarding officer-involved shootings is not consistently reported to us through our Uniform Crime Reporting Program. Because reporting is voluntary, our data is incomplete and therefore, in the aggregate, unreliable.”

Improved information is essential. We hope that lawmakers can set reporting standards and requirements for every agency in the state to follow. This should not be a police vs. the public discussion. Everyone will benefit from better policing, including police, who cannot do their important jobs without the public’s confidence.