Bad cops have it too easy in California. Here's how the Legislature can change that

Assemblywoman Shirley Weber listens during a press conference at the Capitol in April. Her bill to change use-of-force standards for police will be heard on Tuesday in the Senate Public Safety Committee.
Assemblywoman Shirley Weber listens during a press conference at the Capitol in April. Her bill to change use-of-force standards for police will be heard on Tuesday in the Senate Public Safety Committee. rbyer@sacbee.com

California’s powerful police unions are used to having their way at the Capitol. For decades, they’ve been able to coerce lawmakers into burying almost every bill that would have forced their members to accept even a modicum of additional transparency or public accountability.

But times may be changing.

On Tuesday, the Senate Public Safety Committee will consider a bill from Democratic Assemblymembers Shirley Weber and Kevin McCarty that, among other things, would impose strict new limits on when cops can use deadly force against suspects.

Not long ago, Assembly Bill 931 would have been dismissed before it was drafted. But that was before March, when two Sacramento police officers chased an unarmed black man named Stephon Clark into his grandparents’ backyard and shot him to death.

Swarmed by national media, the protests since have filled the air right outside the Capitol windows. There has been no escaping the connection between Clark and the long and growing list of Americans — disproportionately black and male — who get killed by police every year for crimes large and small, or sometimes for what turns out to be no crime at all.

In California as elsewhere, this issue has gone unaddressed for far too long. A bold stand now for more sensible police use-of-force standards would not only save lives and improve public trust in law enforcement, but would show the public that state lawmakers can assert themselves.

AB 931, pushed by Weber, D-San Diego, and McCarty, D-Sacramento, would require officers to use deadly force only when it’s “necessary” to stop an imminent threat and only when attempts to de-escalate the situation with nonlethal tactics haven't worked. Right now, an officer can shoot a suspect when he or she considers it “reasonable” to prevent serious injury or death.

Law enforcement lobbyists insist that such a change would be drastic, but similar policies already are being tried by law enforcement agencies across the country. In Seattle, the results have been positive, with fewer officers in danger and fewer civilians killed. Training is essential, of course, and AB 931 would set aside money for that.

Officers who violate the stricter use-of-force standard could be criminally prosecuted if the law is approved — something that, under current state and federal law, rarely happens. Such prosecutions should be rare, but the tool should be available when needed.

The statutory status quo has been increasingly hard to defend for law enforcement, including the California Peace Officers’ Association and California State Sheriffs’ Association, and the public and many lawmakers are losing patience.

For example, earlier this year, lawmakers lashed out at lobbyists for opposing Senate Bill 1421 by Sen. Nancy Skinner, D-Berkeley, which would force law enforcement agencies to disclose the details of use-of-force investigations and confirmed cases of crimes committed on duty. It short, it would bring the California Peace Officers’ Bill of Rights down to a more reasonable size.

"I think you are completely and utterly out of touch with the realities of how those you are representing are perceived by major segments of California," said Sen. Holly Mitchell, D-Los Angeles. "And you are not going to be able to lobby your way out of it."

Even Costa Mesa Republican Sen. John Moorlach said: "This code of silence has gone on a little too long.” He wondered aloud if the former cop who prosecutors believe is the Golden State Killer would have been caught if not for the overly broad Bill of Rights, which is too often used as a shield by bad cops.

SB 1421 cleared the Senate and is scheduled to be heard in Assembly committee later this month. It, along with AB 931, should pass. Police unions have had their way in California for long enough.