Only the Legislature can save Californians from bad cops

‘Who protects us?’ Activists push for stricter rules on police use of deadly force

Cat Brooks and others introduced Assembly Bill 931, which would tighten the standard for deadly force for police from “reasonable” to “necessary.”
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Cat Brooks and others introduced Assembly Bill 931, which would tighten the standard for deadly force for police from “reasonable” to “necessary.”

Sacramento County Sheriff Scott Jones might not have answered every question this week about the deputy whose sport-utility vehicle struck a woman protesting the police shooting of Stephon Clark. But without Sacramento’s strict requirements for police transparency, beefed up two years ago in response to community outrage, Jones arguably might not have answered any questions at all.

That's progress. And it's proof that changing the rules may be the most effective way to make law enforcement more accountable to the public. Two bills introduced in the Legislature this week would do just that.

Legislation by Assembly members Shirley Weber, D-San Diego, and Kevin McCarty, D-Sacramento, would change the way police are allowed to use deadly force in California. Right now, officers follow the standard of what's "reasonable," and need not try non-lethal tactics or de-escalation to subdue a suspect first.

Assembly Bill 931 would permit lethal force only when it's "necessary," meaning when there's no other way to prevent "imminent" injury. Also, law enforcement officers whose own actions made such force necessary would no longer be justified in killing suspects.

"We want to put it in their mind that there are other options that they should utilize prior to that, that using deadly force is an extreme option," Weber said at a press conference Tuesday that was so packed, some legislative staffers were asked to leave. "That's force you can't bring back."

Separately, Sen. Nancy Skinner, D-Berkeley, is expected to introduce legislation that would permit more public oversight under the California Peace Officers’ Bill of Rights, which mandates that police personnel records be kept tightly confidential. Senate Bill 1421 would force law enforcement agencies to release the details of use-of-force investigations, confirmed cases of sexual assault and lying while on duty.

Both bills face an uphill battle. Police unions and other powerful, deep-pocketed law-enforcement lobbies have routinely blocked legislation to require more transparency and accountability, and legislators have caved, routinely and shamefully.

A bill similar to Skinner's SB 1421, carried by former state Sen. Mark Leno, was shelved in a Senate committee a few years ago. Another that would have set requirements for releasing footage from body cameras died almost as quickly.

This week, San Francisco District Attorney George Gascón stepped up to back the proposed reforms, but so far, he is alone among California law enforcement officials. So Weber and McCarty, backed by the American Civil Liberties Union, Black Lives Matter and the Anti Police-Terror Project, among others, are counting on the public to keep pressure on the Legislature, driven by the police shooting of Clark.

The 22-year-old was gunned down on March 18 in his grandparents’ backyard in the Meadowview neighborhood. The two Sacramento police officers said they thought he had a gun. He only had an iPhone. They also said they believed Clark, who is black, was moving toward them; a private autopsy ordered by the victim's family shows Clark was shot multiple times in the back.

No matter how egregious the details of this case, the officers are unlikely to be criminally charged or sued under current state law. An investigation into their conduct is underway by Sacramento County District Attorney Anne Marie Schubert and is being overseen by the state Attorney General’s Office.

A separate probe will determine if the officers violated department policies or procedures. But even if the officers are disciplined for that, state law still will keep the details under wraps and barred from the public.

The same goes for the investigation of the sheriff's deputy who hit protester Wanda Cleveland on Saturday night, sending her rolling, bloodied and bruised, into a curb.

The public deserves better. Only the California Legislature can ensure that.

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