The thing about pendulums is that they often swing too wildly when they are set in motion. That’s the argument of those who believe California police officers have been given too much power to shoot and kill people – a disproportionate number of them being black and brown.
But a “fix” that has been introduced by a California legislator is a push in the opposite direction that is likely to have wild and dangerous consequences. Lawmakers should look somewhere in between to set statewide, enforceable “deadly force” guidelines, with the goal to protect all citizens, including law enforcement officers, who risk their lives every day for us.
The nation’s eyes are focused on California, where legislators are on the verge of passing the most restrictive deadly force guidelines in the nation. They are debating two bills – AB 392, which is supported by civil rights advocates, and SB 230, which is backed by law enforcement agencies.
In addition to individual department policies, existing guidelines covering when police officers can use deadly force are based on the U.S. Supreme Court’s conclusion that police can use force when a reasonable officer in the same circumstance would do the same thing.
Assemblywoman Shirley Weber, D-San Diego, has introduced AB 392, which would strengthen the legal standard from “reasonable” to “necessary.” While some might view that as a simple word change, law enforcement groups contend it would cause officers to dangerously hesitate in split-second situations and could result in officers being unfairly punished.
Instead, they back Salinas Democratic Sen. Anna Caballero’s SB 230, which has been amended to include reforms proposed by Attorney General Xavier Becerra after the Sacramento police shooting of Stephon Clark in 2018. Believing Clark was brandishing a gun, police shot and killed the unarmed 22-year-old black man in his grandmother’s Sacramento back yard.
Caballero and police officials contend SB 230 incorporates the “best practices” of progressive law enforcement agencies to establish statewide deadly force guidelines. These include increased training of police officers, particularly in de-escalation strategies; distance, time and place restrictions on when force can be used; a requirement that officers report excessive use of force by fellow officers and that agencies investigate reports; and a requirement that agencies share their guidelines with the public.
Both SB 230 and AB 392, which have passed legislative committees, await votes in the Assembly and Senate, and are the focus of heated negotiations.
Deadly force concerns are based in fact. According to the American Civil Liberties Union, California police kill people at a rate 37 percent higher than the national average per capita. According to a Guardian newspaper investigation, police in Kern County killed more people per capita than any other American county in 2015.
A recent Bakersfield Californian evaluation of Bakersfield police records over the past decade revealed officers killed 34 people in 59 officer-involved shootings. In every instance except one, city police investigators determined the shootings were within department, federal and state guidelines.
According to statistics posted on the Los Angeles Police Department website, the BPD has an average rate of 1.7 officer-involved shootings per 100,000, compared to the LAPD’s record of 1 per 100,000. In 2016, the California Department of Justice opened an ongoing investigation into the alleged use of force by the BPD and the Kern County Sheriff’s Office.
Establishing statewide, enforceable deadly force guidelines is long overdue. But for the effort to be successful, there must be a negotiated merger of SB 230 and AB 392 to balance the public’s protection with law enforcement officers’ protection.
For the public to have confidence in the result, laws reforming the use of deadly force must include transparency. Just as the Legislature last year opened to the public police officer misconduct files, they must require that the details surrounding the use of deadly force be openly shared with the public.
More than the passage of a law dictating when an officer can use deadly force, shining the bright light of public disclosure will change a system that some claim is fatally and racially targeting Californians.