Editorials

A lost opportunity on police reform

Even state standards on body cameras have stumbled in California under pushback from law enforcement lobbyists.
Even state standards on body cameras have stumbled in California under pushback from law enforcement lobbyists. Los Angeles Times

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The timing seemed perfect: Amid outrage over deadly force across the country, California appeared poised to set an example in addressing the toxic distrust between poor communities and police.

Now the odds of change here seem long, and it’s a disgrace and a pity. Muscled by law enforcement, elected officials have backed down from one reform after another.

A smart plan for statewide body camera guidelines stalled after law enforcement lobbyists insisted that cops shouldn’t have to file reports on shootings until they see the video evidence against them.

A sensible measure requiring independent investigations of police shootings was shelved when law enforcement balked at oversight from any prosecutors but local district attorneys.

Even the push for data has struggled. Last week, a bill compelling local authorities to share more information about the number and reasons for police stops barely made it out of the Assembly.

A separate measure that would have required all agencies, including the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, to report when someone is hurt or killed during an interaction with law enforcement died in committee.

Another bill quantifying deaths in custody remains in contention, but Assembly Bill 71 doesn’t extend to correctional officers, and it only covers one kind of lethal force by two kinds of law enforcement: shootings by sheriff’s departments and police.

Good grief. California should lead on these issues. There’s no excuse for this namby-pamby reluctance to ask for accountability.

We trust law enforcement to protect us and maintain order; we arm them with lethal weapons and give them the benefit of the doubt in life-and-death situations. We reward them with fair pay and pensions. It’s not too much for taxpayers to ask for transparency.

Yet even Attorney General Kamala Harris seems to fear the thin-blue-line blowback. Last month, she disavowed the need for baseline, statewide body camera rules. A “one-size-fits-all approach,” she called it, as if police oversight should depend on local customs.

We have statewide standards for all sorts of police work, from collision investigations to SWAT team training; body cameras should be no different. But Harris, who is running for U.S. Senate, needs law enforcement endorsements, too.

We can’t erase the lessons of Staten Island, Cleveland, Baltimore, Tulsa, North Charleston. Technology is forcing the nation to confront bad police work that we’ve let slide for far too long.

According to The Washington Post, law officers have shot and killed nearly 400 civilians nationally since January. Many were saving lives; some were hardly heroic. But only about half showed up in federal counts that are supposed track such shootings, largely because police don’t like change and lawmakers are afraid to force it.

At some point, politicians need to forget their next elections and do the jobs they were hired to do by the public. How about now?

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