To understand why California legislators need to pass a collection of police reform bills this session, including one that significantly raises the standard for when cops can use deadly force, look no further than the Sacramento Police Department.
Until March of this year, when two officers responding to a report of someone breaking into vehicles, spotted and chased Stephon Clark, ultimately gunning him down in his grandparents’ backyard, the department had never seriously considered implementing a foot pursuit policy.
It took Clark dying and the realization that he was holding a cellphone, not a gun, for that to happen.
It took the public shaming of mass protests and international media attention to adopt a policy that forced Sacramento officers to consider how they could be escalating a confrontation. And most police and sheriff’s departments in California aren’t much better.
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On Wednesday, for example, Sacramento County Inspector General Rick Braziel found that sheriff’s deputies fired an “excessive, unnecessary” number of bullets and put the public at risk while chasing Mikel Laney McIntyre along the shoulder of Highway 50 in May 2017.
More unarmed people — particularly young black men like Clark — shouldn’t have to die to prompt law enforcement agencies to find the political will to do what Chief Daniel Hahn did for his department in Sacramento.
Assembly Bill 931, which is in danger of being abandoned by the Senate Appropriations Committee on Thursday, wouldn’t specifically require law enforcement agencies to adopt a foot pursuit policy. But by permitting the use of deadly force only when it’s “necessary” to stop an imminent threat of injury or death and only when attempts to de-escalate the situation with nonlethal tactics haven’t worked, the legislation would force cops across California to completely rethink the way they deal with suspects.
For that reason, AB 931, introduced by Assembly members Shirley Weber, D-San Diego, and Kevin McCarty, D-Sacramento, is going to be a tough sell. Deep-pocketed law enforcement groups, long used to getting their way at the state Capitol, have been lobbying hard. Legislators, including committee chairman Sen. Anthony Portantino, D-La Cañada Flintridge, should stand up to the pressure.
At least Senate Bill 1421, from Sen. Nancy Skinner, D-Berkeley, looks poised to pass. The legislation would deal a blow to the overly secretive California Peace Officers’ Bill of Rights, forcing law enforcement agencies to disclose the details of use-of-force investigations and the personnel records of cops who commit crimes while on duty.
Despite some opposition, it’s hard to argue against basic transparency and accountability — especially when prosecutors keep filing murder charges against Joseph James DeAngelo, a longtime police officer suspected of being the East Area Rapist.
But on the potential chopping block is Senate Bill 10, another reform that would make criminal justice in California fairer.
Originally envisioned as a comprehensive plan to reform the bail system, it has unfortunately been gutted. It would allow judges to jail presumably innocent people who have been charged even with a misdemeanor. And it would give supervisors in each county a say in who is eligible for bail, possibly undermining a uniform statewide bail system.
Advocates of the bill, carried by Sen. Bob Hertzberg, D-Van Nuys, are understandably uneasy. They would prefer — as would we — a system that lays out a fair system of determining whether a person should be released or not, based on an assessment of their risk of fleeing and to society.
Already, far too many people are held in jail for weeks and even years at a time simply because they can’t afford to pay California’s astronomical fees, or because they don’t want to be beholden to the craven, for-profit bail industry. Even worse, some people plead guilty to crimes they didn’t commit just to go free, and to keep their lives and careers and families from falling apart.
SB 10 is far from perfect, but it does do away with the bail industry’s role. That’s worth supporting, as long as there’s also a plan to return to the Legislature to demand a better deal.
Lives are at stake, and so is public trust in the thousands of officers who serve their communities every day with honor and grace. Legislators should remember that.