To save lives, deadly force policy needs serious reform – not window dressing

Police guard the Sacramento Convention center during a Black Lives Matter protest on the six month anniversary of Stephon Clark’s death in Sacramento, Calif., on Tues., Sept. 18, 2018.
Police guard the Sacramento Convention center during a Black Lives Matter protest on the six month anniversary of Stephon Clark’s death in Sacramento, Calif., on Tues., Sept. 18, 2018. rbyer@sacbee.com

Imagine a world without laws. In place of laws, imagine being asked to voluntarily follow a set of general guidelines. Things like speeding, robbery and assault would be discouraged. Yet, without any laws in place, no one could hold you accountable for violations. Compliance would be left up to each individual.

Any law enforcement officer can tell you why such a system would never work. Yet this is exactly the system some cops desire when it comes to policing their own use of deadly force against citizens.

For the second year in a row, law enforcement groups are fiercely opposing a bill by Assemblywoman Shirley Weber (D-San Diego) and Assemblyman Kevin McCarty (D-Sacramento) that would establish tighter rules specifying the circumstances in which officers can use deadly force.

Assembly Bill 392 would modify the existing standard for when deadly force may be used, set forth in a patchwork of statutes dating back to 1872. In essence, according to a 1989 decision by the United States Supreme Court, police officers may use deadly force when they consider it “reasonable” to do so. This vagueness has resulted in the deaths of many unarmed civilians, a disproportionate number of them black men.

Michael Brown. Eric Garner. Tamir Rice. Philando Castile. Walter Scott. Mikel McIntyre. Stephon Clark. Willie McCoy. Smartphone camera videos have unveiled the deadly reality black men all too often face when interacting with police. In statistical terms, use of deadly force by police is rare. Yet every unnecessary death is an incalculable loss and a fundamental violation of human rights. The names of these men stand as testaments to the lives lost, and the pain caused, due to unnecessary police violence.

AB 392 seeks to change this dynamic by permitting deadly force only when deemed “necessary” in specific circumstances.

The bill – also known as the “California Act to Save Lives” – would:

Establish clear rules to specify the circumstances under which officers can use deadly force

Allow officers to resort to deadly force only when there are no reasonable alternatives, and mandate de-escalation when possible

Permit use of deadly force only when required to protect the lives of officers or citizens

A similar bill by Weber and McCarty stalled last year due to law enforcement opposition. This year promises a repeat of last year’s showdown – but with a twist.

The police groups now have a bill of their own. Senate Bill 230, introduced by state Sen. Anna Caballero (D-Salinas), co-opts the language of reform without actually doing much. It would require law enforcement agencies to establish guidelines and training, but has no specific requirements of any kind. Critics, like the American Civil Liberties Union, call it “toothless.”

Under AB 392, however, officers who violate rules governing the use of deadly force could be held accountable through administrative, civil or criminal charges. It’s real reform. That’s why the police groups oppose it.

Evidence suggests AB 392 may be exactly what California needs to reduce the unnecessary use of deadly force. In Seattle, where police adopted more stringent rules as part of a federal consent decree, police use of force has dropped “without officer injuries going up,” according to the United States Attorney’s Office for the Western District of Washington.

In addition: “Force has gone down without crime going up, demonstrating that constitutional policing does not require sacrificing public safety.”

Yet despite the success of Seattle’s safer model, police officers across the nation continue to have broad discretion over when to use deadly force. Police officers have killed approximately 1,000 people each year for the past four years, according to the Washington Post.

“Crime has nothing to do with it,” UC Berkeley criminologist Franklin Zimring told the Post. “The number remains high because the police rules for shooting people don’t change, and police forces tolerate shootings of people armed with weapons that aren’t usually life-threatening to police.”

Law enforcement is a tough job. Most officers are good people. But the current standard for deadly force is a license to kill. Reform is long overdue, and that’s why we supported Weber and McCarty’s previous bill, known as AB 931.

The big difference this year is that the law enforcement organizations which blocked the bill now admit deadly force policy is a critical issue. But their favored approach is window dressing, not real change.

Legislators must reject attempts to confuse the issue. The difference between the two bills is crystal clear. The stakes are life and death. How many more lives will be lost unnecessarily if California fails to enact meaningful reform?