Hundreds of students in Sacramento left their classrooms Thursday to march on the State Capitol. Instead of learning history at their desks, they sought to make history by calling on legislators to pass Assembly Bill 392.
The law, co-authored by Assemblywoman Shirley Weber (D-San Diego) and Assemblyman Kevin McCarty (D-Sacramento), would limit the circumstances under which police can use deadly force.
Sure, they skipped class – and that shouldn’t become a habit. But by marching on the Capitol, they showed up for their community. They demonstrated more leadership than some of our official leaders managed to muster this week.
District Attorney Anne Marie Schubert disappointed many when she declined to file charges against the officers who killed Stephon Clark. But here’s the hard truth: California’s current law regarding use of deadly force gives officers overly broad authority. Even if Schubert had filed charges, it’s unlikely they would have resulted in a conviction under current law.
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That’s why the law must change.
When asked whether she supported deadly force reform, Schubert had nothing to say about whether the law should be changed. Yet she spared no effort to build a case against a dead man – unnecessarily revealing his personal text messages and toxicology results.
Attorney General Xavier Becerra did somewhat better. While he also declined to prosecute the officers, he committed to working to change the law.
“I don’t intend to be AWOL when it comes to the discussion on how we write these new chapters,” he said.
Speaking of AWOL: One person was conspicuously absent when the Sacramento Police Department decided to arrest 84 people – including law-abiding citizens, working journalists and members of the clergy – during a protest march through East Sacramento. That person: Sacramento Police Chief Daniel Hahn.
As the appalling scene of arrests unfolded, bringing a dramatic and ugly end to a peaceful protest march, Hahn was nowhere to be found. Calls to his cell phone went unanswered. Not even the mayor could track him down. At one of the most critical moments of his career, Hahn vanished.
At City Hall the next day, he didn’t have much to say. What little he did say raised questions about his leadership.
“That’s a good question,” he said, when asked who had ordered the mass arrests.
“I don’t know who was in charge at the moment. I wasn’t there.”
With all due respect, Chief Hahn: You’re in charge.
We may never know what Hahn was doing on the night when his officers, in a city gripped by grief and anger, decided to inflame tensions by arresting everyone in sight. We do know that Chief Hahn’s credibility has faltered.
Just weeks ago, we applauded Hahn’s commitment to transparency and accountability in his department. He and Becerra laid out 49 recommended reforms for the department, an indication that Hahn was committed to putting his department on the right track.
In addition, Hahn has indicated a willingness to comply with Senate Bill 1421. The bill, signed by Gov. Jerry Brown last year, requires law enforcement agencies to release the disciplinary records of officers involved in shootings, crimes or other kinds of misconduct. The bill’s author, State Senator Nancy Skinner (D-Berkeley), wrote the bill to be retroactive, applying to past as well as future records.
Some law enforcement agencies, like the California Highway Patrol, have complied. Other departments have destroyed their past records. Meanwhile, police groups up and down the state have challenged the law in court. Multiple judges have rejected their arguments.
After the district attorney’s announcement, Chief Hahn’s department released transcripts, videos and records related to the Clark investigation in compliance with SB 1421. This is a good first step, but the people of Sacramento deserve a police department that fully complies with the law.
They also deserve answers now to why a peaceful protest in East Sacramento ended in mass arrests. When questioned, Hahn said he’d have answers “in a couple of weeks.” Mayor Steinberg and City Manager Howard Chan (Hahn’s actual boss) have demanded an expedited report.
Police officers have a tough job. The vast majority of them join the force because they have a passion to serve. No officer suits up with a desire to harm the innocent or unarmed. We depend on them to confront the worst and most dangerous problems in our society.
As angry as many are at officers Mercadal and Robinet, we must acknowledge the reality that they, too, suffer. They will carry Stephon Clark’s death for the rest of their lives.
Without question, an overhaul of California’s deadly force law is long overdue. The current law is too vague and has resulted in many unnecessary deaths. We need modern policies designed to, in Attorney General Becerra’s words, expressly connect “the sanctity of human life with use-of-force policies” and encourage a “guardian mindset” among police officers.
We need AB 392.
Winning major policy change won’t be easy. Thursday’s march was only the beginning. This decision will be made here, in the State Capitol, in our city. In the months ahead, we will need to show up at committee hearings, in the offices of legislators and the governor, at City Hall.
We must work to ensure that our voices are heard and that our leaders act in our best interests, not at the behest of backroom lobbyists.
Because, in the words of the California Constitution, “All political power is inherent in the people.”