You marched, called and demanded change – and California acted to save lives

Watch as clergy and Stephon Clark’s family join together to support of use of force bill

Ministers and Stephon Clark's family marched to the California Capitol in support of AB 392, a bill that would limit when police can use deadly force, on Thursday, March 7, 2019.
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Ministers and Stephon Clark's family marched to the California Capitol in support of AB 392, a bill that would limit when police can use deadly force, on Thursday, March 7, 2019.

You did it.

After Sacramento police shot Stephon Clark to death in his grandparents’ back yard last year, many in our city channeled their anger and sorrow into democratic action.

This year, you organized a campaign to support Assembly Bill 392 – the California Act to Save Lives. You marched, called, wrote letters and visited lawmakers. You demanded change to California’s deadly force law, dating back to the 1870s, which allows officers to take life when they consider it “reasonable.” This vague standard led to the unnecessary deaths of unarmed people, many of them black or Latino.

This week, the California State Assembly passed AB 392 by a vote of 67-0. Now it goes to the state Senate, where it is expected to pass thanks to a deal forged by Senate President Pro Tem Toni Atkins, Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon and Gov. Gavin Newsom.

You got their attention, and now California will have one of the toughest deadly force standards in the nation.

This is a victory. Powerful law enforcement groups waged an all-out war against the bill by Assemblywoman Shirley Weber, D-San Diego. They did their best to kill it. You made them acknowledge reality and negotiate.

Law enforcement deserves some credit for shifting. Most police officers are good people who risk their lives to keep us safe. But law enforcement organizations tend to stand up for their officers – even when they’re wrong, even when change is long overdue. They saw AB 392 as an attack on their ranks.

Yet, in the end, they agreed to historic changes.

Critics of the bill say the compromise version – which allows officers to use deadly force when “the officer reasonably believes, based on the totality of the circumstances, that deadly force is necessary to defend against an imminent threat of death or serious bodily injury” – doesn’t go far enough. They must be unfamiliar with Sacramento. Change tends to happen incrementally in the Capitol. People spend years fighting for reforms. They get knocked down. They get back up. They come back year after year, decade after decade.

The question is not whether you win quickly and absolutely. The question is whether you keep working for change. It took only two years for supporters of reform to overcome powerful opposition and make AB 392 a reality. That’s impressive.

So don’t let the cynics rob you of your moment. They miss the bigger picture.

AB 392 was always about saving lives, not throwing cops into prison. Once you’re prosecuting an officer for murder, it’s too late. AB 392 changes the rules at the front end. It raises the standard for when officers may legally use deadly force. It makes clear they can only do so in response to a deadly threat.

Officers in California will now be trained according to the new rules, thanks to Senate Bill 230. Their mentality towards the use of deadly force will be fundamentally altered. Police departments that have adopted similar reforms have seen significant declines in the use of force by officers.

SB 230 was originally intended as decoy legislation to derail AB 392. But you spoke up, called it out and got it amended. Now, if its supporters keep their word, it should be the vehicle through which a new generation of officers is trained according to higher standards.

Most important of all: Now we know what’s possible. Law enforcement, which started by arguing that there wasn’t a problem, has now acknowledged the need for a solution. Now we know we can win. And if AB 392 fails to reduce the number of unnecessary killings of unarmed people by police, we will be back to demand further reforms.

Let’s hope it doesn’t come to that. But let’s be ready to march if it does.

“It is a move in a forward direction,” said Theresa Smith, who began crusading for change after her 35-year-old son, Caesar Ray Cruz, was shot to death by Anaheim police in 2009. “This isn’t the end of the fight. This isn’t the end of wanting more accountability. This is just the beginning.”

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