Members of the Senate Public Safety Committee raised eyebrows last week when they brushed off objections from powerful law enforcement groups and, by a 5-2 vote, advanced a bill that would put strict new limits on when cops can use deadly force against suspects.
With unsettling frequency, law enforcement shootings of civilians in California are being revealed as cases in which an officer shot first and asked questions later. Dozens of Californians are gunned down each year by police under questionable circumstances.
Because existing law is what it is, such shootings are rarely found to be out of policy, and rogue officers are rarely charged, let alone convicted. Meanwhile, departments have scant incentive to deescalate confrontations.
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The situation traumatizes all involved, the officers included, and has badly corroded trust in law enforcement. Assembly Bill 931 from Assemblymembers Shirley Weber, D-San Diego, and Kevin McCarty, D-Sacramento, would change that. And its model is reasonable, taken from best practices and strategies that are succeeding in other jurisdictions.
So now, of course, the sky is falling. Within hours of the committee vote, law enforcement groups throughout California predictably circled the wagons, declaring their refusal to compromise with Weber and McCarty. Nope. No way. Never.
"We agree that more training can result in better outcomes,” Jonathan Feldman, a lobbyist for the California Police Chiefs Association, told The Bee. “But there is a fundamental disagreement about raising the standard above what the Supreme Court has said."
Fresno Police Chief Jerry Dyer told TV reporters: "When officers are out there, and they're faced with a split second decision, and they are now worried about not only losing their life but losing their freedom and going to prison, they may hesitate long enough to where their life or the life of a citizen is in danger."
And Merced County Sheriff Vern Warnke surmised that lawmakers are "going to cause these cops to start second-guessing on what they're going to do because they're going to think, ‘My gosh, I will end up in jail.' Next thing I know, I'm going to a cops funeral. We have people making these laws that have never been trained or put in a situation and feel compelled to make a decision. That's not right!"
Everyone take a deep breath.
While it’s true that AB 931 represents a big change for California cops, who are accustomed to following a use-of-force standard so antiquated that it predates what the federal government requires, there are good reasons to stop, think and consider this legislation. For one, the provisions in it aren’t new.
The Seattle Police Department has been using them for six years. Since Seattle began requiring officers to use deadly force only when it's "necessary" to stop an imminent threat of injury or death, rather than "reasonable," per the standard set forth by the U.S. Supreme Court, the department has seen fewer officers hurt, fewer civilians killed and a general decline in crime rates.
"This reduction in the use of force cannot be attributed to anything other than what can now be statistically shown: Officers in the field are de-escalating volatile situations with regularity and skill, putting in practice the training that has established Seattle as a national leader in policing reform,” former Seattle Police Chief Kathleen O’Toole wrote last year.
AB 931 is largely based on the policing policies of Seattle, as well as some updates to the use-of-force standard by the Los Angeles Police Department and the more comprehensive policy that law enforcement groups are currently blocking from taking effect at the San Francisco Police Department.
Seattle reformed its department at the behest of a federal consent decree, signed in 2012, that found the city had a history of excessive force and biased policing. Even without marching orders from the U.S. Justice Department, other cities across the country are following suit, secure in the knowledge that it's the best way to improve frayed relations with the public.
Sacramento is just one example. In the wake of the controversial police shootings of Joseph Mann in 2016 and Stephon Clark in March, the city's police department has overhauled its policies to require officers to, above all, respect the "sanctity of human life," hoping to make lethal force the last resort instead of the go-to reflex. Sacramento's goal is to get officers to use de-escalation tactics whenever possible, including time, distance and nonlethal weapons.
Law enforcement unions stonewalling at the Capitol should want this for their members. It would certainly be an improvement on the current, lax use-of-force statute, which has put cops and poorer communities at each others' throats, waiting on edge for the next shooting and the next Black Lives Matter protest.
That's a disservice not only to the public, but to the vast majority of good police officers who do their jobs bravely and selflessly with the community in mind.
To have reservations about the details of AB 931 is understandable. To worry about the state not providing enough money to retrain more than 100,000 cops is reasonable.
But the need for change cannot and should not be dismissed by the very organizations that are refusing to negotiate and work out a compromise with Weber and McCarty. The status quo is not sustainable.