Editorials

Stephon Clark’s life mattered. His death must change rules for police deadly force

Change the law.

If there’s one thing we can do to channel the pain and anguish of Stephon Clark’s unnecessary death into meaningful action, it’s this: Use every ounce of energy and outrage to push for the passage of Assembly Bill 392.

The bill, by Assemblywoman Shirley Weber (D-San Diego) and Assemblyman Kevin McCarty (D-Sacramento), would limit the circumstances under which law enforcement officers can use deadly force. With such a law in place, Stephon might still be alive today.

Let’s be clear: Stephon Clark did not deserve to die. He was unarmed in his grandparents’ backyard when police shot him seven or eight times, including multiple times in the back. In total, they fired 20 rounds – some of them after he had already fallen to his hands and knees – all because they allegedly mistook his cell phone for a gun.

“Show me your hands!” they yelled, as Clark lay dying.

How is a man with seven bullets in his body supposed to comply with such a command? It doesn’t make any sense. Neither does the current law regarding use of deadly force by police.

Sacramento District Attorney Anne Marie Schubert’s decision to let two Sacramento Police Department officers walk free after killing Clark is beyond disappointing. Unfortunately, it comes as no surprise. The existing standard for using deadly force – laid out in a patchwork of statutes dating back to 1872 – lets officers use deadly force when they consider it “reasonable” to do so.

This overly broad authority over life and death has resulted in the tragic killings of many unarmed civilians. A disproportionate number of them are black men like Stephon Clark.

Schubert says she was only following the law. When asked whether she thinks the law needs to change, she evaded by saying: “What I support is that we do everything we can to improve outcomes. Today I’m not going to talk about the legislation. I support whatever we can do to improve outcomes … today is not the day for me to talk about legislation. Today is the day for me to talk about this case.”

Attorney General Xavier Becerra will issue a separate report on Clark’s killing, but chances he’ll announce a different conclusion seem slim. Regardless of his decision, it’s clear the law must change.

AB 392 will save lives by reforming the rules for when police can use deadly force. It would permit deadly force only when necessary. 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

Officers who fail to follow the rules could face prosecution. These reforms are sensible – and urgently needed. They have succeeded in reducing deadly force incidents, without any increase in officer injuries, in cities like Seattle.

Law enforcement groups stopped a similar bill last year. This year must be different, but there’s no guarantee the Democratic-controlled Legislature will stand up to law enforcement lobbyists.

The Sacramento Police Department plans to revise its rules in response to a report by the California Department of Justice – requested by Chief Daniel Hahn – which recommended “prohibiting certain problematic uses of force, including needlessly high-risk force, such as chokeholds, and shooting at or from moving vehicles.” The report also said police should more clearly recognize “the sanctity of human life with use of force-related policies.”

Mayor Darrell Steinberg said he will use his knowledge and experience as a former legislator to help change the state’s deadly force law.

We asked Hahn’s office whether he supports AB 392. He declined to comment.

We asked Attorney General Becerra the same question. His response: “The Department of Justice is in the midst of an investigation involving use of force by the Sacramento Police Department. Until this investigation is completed, we will reserve comment regarding use of force legislation.”

And what about Sen. Kamala Harris, the former attorney general currently running for president as a progressive prosecutor? Her office failed to respond, adding to her reputation as a politician who can be counted on to have no position on important issues when they matter most.

Becerra and Harris are two of the most powerful elected officials in California. If they lack the courage to publicly support a crucial bill like AB 392, how can legislators be expected to do the right thing?

They can’t – not unless they fear the moral outrage of the public more than they fear the political pressure of law enforcement groups.

Outrage, pain and anger are appropriate responses to the kind of injustice Clark and his family have endured. Yet there’s only one way to truly honor his memory: We must change the law to stop this from happening again and again.

Today, we mourn for Stephon Clark. We mourn for his death at age 22, and we mourn the injustice of a legal system that allowed his life to be taken with no consequences for those who killed him.

It’s too late to save Stephon. Nothing we do or say can bring him back. But though his life was cut short, his legacy can live on forever in the countless lives that will be saved if AB 392 becomes the law of the land.

Let’s get to work.

Editor’s note: This piece was updated to include Mayor Steinberg’s comments, and to reflect the conflicting conclusions of two separate autopsy reports.

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