California reforms should be just a start

Protesters demonstrate in New York last December against a grand jury decision not to indict a policeman in the chokehold-related death of Eric Garner.
Protesters demonstrate in New York last December against a grand jury decision not to indict a policeman in the chokehold-related death of Eric Garner. Associated Press file

This week in police reform, Gov. Jerry Brown signed a groundbreaking new ban on the use of grand juries in lethal force cases. Along with a new law affirming the public’s right to videotape officers in the line of duty, the legislation sets a valuable example in the post-Ferguson era. It also improves accountability for law enforcement abuse.

People in other states can only dream of the transparency that now exists in California, and Californians should be proud that lawmakers have taken this step forward. But everything is relative. Compared to what this state could and should do to restore trust between police officers and civilians, those bills are the least we can do.

Ferguson, Mo., became shorthand for sanctioned police abuse in large part because the white officer who shot Michael Brown, an unarmed, 18-year-old black shoplifter, was exonerated in December by a Missouri grand jury. National outrage was compounded a week later when another grand jury, this time in Staten Island, N.Y., opted not to indict a white New York police officer in the chokehold death of Eric Garner, another unarmed black man.

Minority communities have long argued that one reason police are so rarely punished for killing unarmed civilians is that the local prosecutors are reluctant to impugn police, whose political support they need to get re-elected. Rather than deciding themselves whether to criminally charge an officer suspected of fatally abusing a suspect, prosecutors too often convene grand juries, presenting the evidence against officers in closed hearings, and then letting the citizen panel issue the indictment – or, more commonly, not.

California’s grand jury ban, authored by Sen. Holly Mitchell, D-Los Angeles, will add transparency, though it also will raise the political stakes for district attorneys. If a rogue officer is allowed to get away with murder, voters will know. Not surprisingly, the California District Attorneys Association opposed the legislation. Good for Mitchell and Brown in overcoming the DAs’ considerable clout.

But as extraordinary as this new law may seem in, say, Missouri – where, a year after Ferguson, lawmakers passed exactly one of 65 proposed reforms, a measure limiting municipal court fines – it’s actually not that novel in California. Already, district attorneys in Los Angeles and Santa Clara counties opt as a matter of policy not to use grand juries in police cases.

So while a statewide ban will standardize those good instincts, it won’t make nearly as much of a difference as other, bolder measures. Tough statewide standards for body cameras are sorely needed. So are broader data on use-of-force incidents and deaths in custody.

Those meatier reforms are stalled, thanks to the power of law enforcement lobbies. If state lawmakers could summon the courage to unblock them, that would truly break ground.