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Fatal Police Shootings Could Become a Crime Under Proposed California Law
Written by <a href="index.php?option=com_comprofiler&task=userProfile&user=50885"><span class="small">Marco della Cava, USA Today</span></a>   
Thursday, 30 May 2019 13:35

della Cava writes: "A showdown over when police can use deadly force is set to unfold in the California Legislature next week, which could result in sweeping changes to law enforcement departments that give officers broad latitude in deciding when to shoot to kill."

Assemblywoman Shirley Weber, D-San Diego, discusses her bill that would allow police to use deadly force only when there is no reasonable alternative. (photo: Rich Pedroncelli/AP)
Assemblywoman Shirley Weber, D-San Diego, discusses her bill that would allow police to use deadly force only when there is no reasonable alternative. (photo: Rich Pedroncelli/AP)

Fatal Police Shootings Could Become a Crime Under Proposed California Law

By Marco della Cava, USA Today

30 May 19


showdown over when police can use deadly force is set to unfold in the California Legislature next week, which could result in sweeping changes to law enforcement departments that give officers broad latitude in deciding when to shoot to kill.

At issue is Assembly Bill 392, known as the California Act to Save Lives, which would put the onus on officers to justify discharging their weapon, shifting the standard from “reasonable” – as defined by the Supreme Court's Graham v Connor ruling in 1989 – to “necessary.” That means that, under the proposed bill, police must feel confident it is necessary to shoot to protect themselves or others from danger, or they could be prosecuted for killing a person. 

Instead of reaching for their guns, officers would be pressed to engage in de-escalation tactics that aim to reduce tension between officer and suspect. Experts said these include listening to the suspect's story, explaining the actions an officer is about to take and ensuring that the suspect's dignity is preserved throughout the interaction.

California has the highest percentage of police shootings per 100,000 people among states with more than 8 million residents, said Seth Stoughton, a former police officer who is a law professor at the University of South Carolina and an expert on deadly force rules.

"The states are all over the map in the way they regulate deadly force, with some being very permissive, and that’s where California is right now," said Stoughton, noting that the Western state shares that reputation with Georgia, Texas and Florida. Among large states, New York has the fewest officer-related shooting deaths.

"This new bill would make the preservation of life law enforcement's top priority in California," said Stoughton, who wrote letters to California lawmakers in support of the bill. "Having the state Legislature tell police officers, 'This is the job we expect you to do' is an important piece of symbolism."

AB 392's co-sponsor, Assembly member Shirley Weber, D-San Diego, said the law would encourage police to consider nonlethal methods when bringing suspects into custody.

"The piling on of killings of often unarmed civilians by police for the past six or seven years now is wearing on the conscience of this nation," she said. "The thought after these shootings often is, ‘Isn’t there something else police could have done?’ And maybe sometimes there are other things."

Critics said AB 392 ignores the nuanced difficulties inherent in police work and will have a calamitous effect on everything from policing practices to recruiting.

“This bill is an affront against anyone who wears a badge, and if people understood its consequences, nobody would vote for it,” said Assemblyman Tom Lackey, R-Palmdale, who served on the California Highway Patrol for 28 years. “Unless you’ve been in this arena, you don’t understand how fast things unfold.”

Lackey said officers take their power to kill extremely seriously, recounting a CHP colleague who became so distraught after one fatal shooting that he became an alcoholic and killed himself.

Lackey said there is a problem exists with policing protocols, which have resulted in the high-profile shooting deaths of civilians such as Stephon Clark, a Sacramento man who was killed by police officers in March 2018 while carrying only a cellphone.

“But this bill isn’t the solution to that problem,” he said, warning that the new policy could lead to tragic results for officers. "You change the policy midstream, and you’ll cause officers to think before reacting, and that time gap is going to be deadly."

AB 392 pits victims’ relatives and the American Civil Liberties Union against a massive statewide force – state and local officers serving 40 million people across 600 agencies with 120,000 personnel – that until recently was protected by one of the toughest police privacy laws in the country.

On Jan. 1, Senate Bill 1421 became law, allowing the public to seek access to police records and internal investigation files to get more information about incidents in which police either use lethal force or are suspected of criminal activity.

Theresa Smith is among many victims’ rights advocates who has spent time in Sacramento sharing her story in support of both SB 1421 and AB 392. Her son, Caesar Ray Cruz, was killed in 2009 in Southern California after a tipster told police he was a gang member and armed.

After being confronted by police in a Walmart parking lot, Cruz was fatally shot. Officers said they thought Cruz was reaching into his waistband, but he was not armed.

The deadly force “bill is important simply because if it had been in effect when my son was shot, there might be some accountability for their actions,” said Smith, who started a nonprofit group called LEAN to help relatives of those killed by police deal with grief and seek answers.

“This bill is about saving lives,” she said. “That includes police lives, and it includes the lives of bystanders. My son was shot in a Walmart parking lot at Christmas.”

Smith said she understands that police work is difficult and dangerous, and “if you’re in imminent danger for your life, you have to make that decision. But if someone’s running from you or has their back to you or is having a mental breakdown, that’s something else.”

Advocates for stricter parameters on police use of force said evidence abounds of instances in which violent armed shooters were taken into custody without incident.

Some argued there often is a racial component at play. 

“Time and time again, officers manage to safely arrest people who are armed and dangerous, though often those people are white,” said Lizzie Buchen, legislative advocate for the ACLU of California.

“We know police have the tools and skills to apprehend people without harming them,” she said. “But there are just dramatic discrepancies of outcomes when you’re dealing with people of color.”

Buchen said the bill is not aimed at neutering police but rather suggests a best-practices solution that should result in a lower use of force, fewer deadly incidents and a rebounding of trust between police officers and the communities they serve.

Senate Bill 230 was put forth by law enforcement as an option to AB 392 and focuses largely on increasing training, but it  doesn't address changing the standard for use of force.

Lawmakers and advocates  were tentatively optimistic that conversations between the two sides of the issue would result in a bill that police officers and victims’ rights groups can support.

“We’re looking to pass what would be the strongest use of force bill in the nation, one that defines it as being usable only when necessary, not when reasonable,” said bill sponsor Weber. “We’re in conversations with law enforcement, and we hope that will net some positive results.”

Robert Harris, president of Protect California, a coalition of law enforcement associations and trade unions, said changing the terms on use of force “is a line in the sand we don’t want to cross.”

The problem with requiring officers to, in the moment, determine "if force is necessary is that it creates a standard officers will never reach and allows for 20/20 hindsight,” he said. “I don’t think 392 will reduce incidents, and I fear that officers, out of fear of being second-guessed, won’t be as proactive as they can be about their policing.”

For Smith, who lost her son to a deadly encounter with police, setting a new standard for when police should discharge their firearms is critical to rebuilding a rapport with law enforcement that is rapidly eroding.

“Right now, if you’re an officer, you can kill someone and have there be no consequences,” she said. “A badge shouldn’t be equal to a license to kill. We just want law enforcement, with all their training, to be held accountable. Because no one should be above the law.”

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+3 # HenryS1 2019-05-30 23:07
How wonderful it would be if this could pass! I speak as a hopeful Californian. You would think that a mostly liberal state wouldn't have untouchable local trigger-happy police, but here they coexist.

And don't get me started on the power in this state held by the prison lobbyists.
+1 # chrisconno 2019-05-31 00:06
Yes I do think that police should not be able to get away with murder. Police have to be held accountable or we will wind up with an even worse system than it already is.
+1 # tedrey 2019-05-31 05:25
The police fear accountability as much as people of color fear police ... with justification.
+2 # dotlady 2019-05-31 09:05
If gun sales were regulated and each firearm had an ID chip, police could tell if a fleeing person was carrying a gun or a cell phone by taking instant readings on their surveillance systems. Meantime, racial fears will take precedence over thought in tight situations.
0 # tedrey 2019-05-31 12:16
Interesting idea. Pros and cons?
0 # Questioner 2019-05-31 13:28
Maybe if each of us had a chip implanted in our brain at birth or upon entry into the county then police could just use their technology to activate the chip and we would be instantly compliant and there would be no need for violence of any sort? Pros and cons?
+1 # dotlady 2019-05-31 13:48
Tedry - way things are going there will be chips in everything including us. In that sense a "con." To carry out this idea at present is probably doable technically, but the police might still not stop to use it. Better world if police had less surveillance at their fingertips and there were less people with guns in the street. And if we had a decent government with care of citizens foremost instead of arms and energy profits.
+1 # tedrey 2019-06-01 11:05
Well, Dotlady, you're the one that suggested it. I've been struggling for all three of your other suggestions for years.

If anybody needs 'chips' it;s the police... and even for them, in their guns, not their brains.
+1 # dotlady 2019-06-02 09:30
Tedrey - yes we have been struggling so long! There seem to be no rational answers to such questions at this time. Some sort of psychological breakdown is taking place across the planet. Could it be that having too many people with too much information, too much technology and too many choices has swamped the human brain's capacity to process ideas and stay focused on what's real? Driven by endless calculated, entertainment-s tyle adrenaline moments,the veneer of civilization is cracking. The police are part of this - too many threats (too many guns) make them trigger-happy. Perhaps global flooding/drough ts will bring focus on people working together with compassion for human survival. But I dream.