Families of Bakersfield residents who have been killed by local law enforcement are applauding a new bill signed by Gov. Gavin Newsom on Monday that strengthens the standards for use of deadly force by officers.
But those same families say more work must be done before law enforcement officers can be held completely accountable when their actions harm others.
“Families are fed up, families are tired. We want change and we’re coming after change,” said Jesse Rodriguez, whose cousin, James De La Rosa, was shot in 2014 by an officer of the Bakersfield Police Department after a high-speed chase. “We’re tired of playing the victim.”
Rodriguez, who is part of a local chapter of the STOP Coalition, was in the room in Sacramento when Newsom signed the bill into law. A number of other local families traveled to the state capital to celebrate the new law.
“It was monumental, it was historic,” Rodriguez said of the bill, which he described as a first step. “At the end of the day, my cousin is gone, and it’s not going to bring him back, but at the same time, it might save lives.”
Written by Assemblywoman Shirley Weber, D-San Diego, after 22-year-old Stephon Clark was shot by the Sacramento Police Department, AB-392 will encourage law enforcement to increasingly rely on de-escalation techniques, like verbal persuasion and other crisis intervention methods, rather than use of force.
Previously, the law had authorized officers to use force under “objectively reasonable” circumstances. Now, officers can use force only when “necessary.”
However, language in the bill was watered down after some law enforcement groups said AB-392 would threaten the way police did their jobs.
The bill, signed into law by Newsom, represents a compromise between law enforcement and civil rights groups.
In fact, BPD’s policies will not be altered much after the change.
“This law reinforces the current use of force standards and practices of the Bakersfield Police department,” said Bakersfield Police Chief Lyle Martin, noting the bill brought the state law in line with federal standards.
BPD Sgt. Nathan McCauley said BPD’s use of force policy has already been governed by these standards, which the department uses to investigate use of force by officers.
For one Bakersfield family in particular, the passage of AB-392 was bittersweet.
“I have so many emotions in my head right now,” said Tametria Nash, mother of Christopher Okamoto, who was shot by BPD officers exactly a year ago on Monday. “It’s still very painful for all of us.”
Okamoto died after he answered the door of his home at around 11:30 p.m. bearing a pellet gun. His family says Okamoto did not know police officers were knocking at the time, and he believed he was being robbed.
BPD found the shooting to be within department policy.
Nash, along with other friends and relatives of Okamoto, held a protest outside BPD headquarters in downtown Bakersfield on Monday, demanding accountability for the 21-year-old’s shooting.
“I just want some change within the police department,” said Jessica Okamoto, Chris’ stepmother. “We can’t get it for Chris, but we want it for other people so they don’t have to suffer like we have.”
She said she hoped police shootings would be reviewed by an independent panel instead of by the department itself.
Nearly all of the local activists who played a part in AB-392 passing hope to continue their efforts on future bills.
“Only time will tell if the bill is going to take,” Rodriguez said. “It’s going to be interesting and it’s going to be a challenge.”
A 2017 study released by the American Civil Liberties Union of California reported the Bakersfield Police Department and the Kern County Sheriff’s Office engaged in “a disturbing pattern of shootings, beatings and canine attacks by police and sheriff’s deputies, beyond what was called for in numerous law enforcement situations, especially when dealing with unarmed individuals,” according to the ACLU.
AB-392 will go into effect Jan. 1, 2020.