Editorials

Want more reasons for police reform in California? How about 172 civilian deaths

Marchers calling for the indictment of two Sacramento police officers in the shooting death of Stephon Clark make their way through downtown Sacramento on April 4. When California lawmakers return from their summer recess in August, they will consider bills to restrict when police use deadly force and open some law enforcement records.
Marchers calling for the indictment of two Sacramento police officers in the shooting death of Stephon Clark make their way through downtown Sacramento on April 4. When California lawmakers return from their summer recess in August, they will consider bills to restrict when police use deadly force and open some law enforcement records. AP

The number is startling – 172 civilians were killed in confrontations with California law enforcement officers last year, up from 157 in 2016.

And there’s another glaring statistic: Nearly one-fourth of the time, officers perceived those civilians were armed, but they actually weren’t.

The state Department of Justice’s report on use-of-force incidents, released this week, should provide even more momentum for bills before the Legislature to improve accountability and transparency in law enforcement.

Assembly Bill 931 would raise California’s legal standard for the use of lethal force from “reasonable” to “necessary.” It was passed by the Senate Public Safety Committee in June and is scheduled to be heard by the Senate Appropriations Committee on Aug. 6.

Senate Bill 1421 would lift the veil of secrecy on personnel records of law enforcement officers, but only if an officer shoots, kills, seriously injures or sexually assaults a civilian, or is proven to have planted evidence, committed perjury or otherwise been dishonest. It was approved by the Senate in May and by the Assembly Public Safety Committee in June.

These bills are eminently reasonable. And they are absolutely needed to balance the rules on deadly force and to restore community trust in law enforcement.

That the bills have made it this far is a reflection of a change in public sentiment and growing anger over police killings of unarmed people of color, including the shooting of Stephon Clark in his grandmother’s Sacramento backyard in March that is still under investigation. After years of stalemate, the Legislature and Gov. Jerry Brown can’t miss this opportunity for real reform.

Regrettably, the powerful law enforcement lobby is seeking to stop both bills, or weaken them into irrelevance.

Three years ago, law enforcement didn’t like Assembly Bill 71, which led to the new report by requiring local agencies to report some details on use-of-force incidents.

Statewide, there were 707 use-of-force incidents last year that resulted in serious injury or death or discharge of a firearm. Of the 741 civilians involved, 441 were injured, in addition to the 172 killed; 265 were shot. Of the 1,687 officers involved, two were killed and another 252 were injured.

While 71 percent of the incidents resulted in an arrest, the report does not conclude whether the use of force was justified. It does say that officers “perceived” that 454 civilians were armed – about 61 percent of the civilians involved. But it turns out 105 of them were unarmed.

More than 90 percent of civilians were male and a disproportionate 63 percent were Hispanic or black, while 58 percent of officers involved were white.

Of the 707 incidents, Los Angeles County recorded by far the most at 193. Next on the list were San Diego County with 66 and San Bernardino with 62. Sacramento County reported 25, San Joaquin County had 21 and Fresno County 13.

With this detailed report in hand, lawmakers no longer have the excuse that it’s unclear how big of a problem California has with needless police killings of civilians. When the Legislature returns from its summer recess in August, the police reform proposals should be near the top of its list of unfinished business.

If the status quo doesn’t change, no one should be surprised if the number of civilian deaths at the hands of law enforcement is even higher in 2018.

  Comments