A law alone impacts no one
While AB 392 emphasizes the importance of establishing clear use-of-force policies in California, there is not universal access to the necessary training to achieve those standards
By Grant Ward and Paul Kelly
This week, California Governor Gavin Newsom signed AB 392 into law, effectively elevating the use of force standards for all law enforcement agencies to those currently practiced by many of California’s police and sheriff departments.
Some call this bill “landmark legislation,” while some call it “window dressing.” For public safety officers, and the communities we serve, labels and political analysis are meaningless. Our collective interests continue to lie in reducing the number of uses of force and increasing safe outcomes between officers and community.
The Governor’s pen, however, is not a magic wand. AB 392 will not create safer outcomes on its own.
AB 392 emphasizes use-of-force policies
What AB 392 does do is emphasize the importance of establishing clear use-of-force policies and the need to provide training to implement those policies. For example, the Los Angeles, San Francisco and San Jose Police Departments, as well as the Los Angeles and San Bernardino Sheriff Departments, already emphasize de-escalation for officers and deputies encountering volatile situations when it is safe to do so; their policies also state that officers and deputies shall show a reverence for human life. Officers in these departments are held to those standards, both legally and as a matter of policy.
The challenge for California, however, is that there is not universal access to the necessary training to achieve those standards. Many departments do not have the time, money and other resources to meet those goals. That’s why the passage of SB 230 is absolutely critical if anyone wants AB 392 to have any sort of meaningful impact.
To expect police officers to effectively de-escalate situations, including using specialized mental health tactics or deploying less lethal options during dangerous high-pressure scenarios without the proper training, is both unrealistic and unfair. California’s elected leaders must invest heavily in new, frequent and ongoing police training.
SB 230 emphasizes use-of-force training
SB 230 attempts to do just that. Authored by State Senator Anna Caballero, SB 230 provides uniform use of force policies for every department, as well as provide officers access to the high-quality training California police officers want and need, such as de-escalation and safely managing people experiencing mental health breakdowns.
California’s training for public safety officers must evolve to meet today’s policing challenges. For example, one of the mental health trainings provided by California’s Commission on Peace Officer Standards and Training (POST) consists of watching a video. That’s right, a video. No role playing, no simulations, no critical thinking needed. Similarly, many departments provide very little, or no, “shoot/don’t shoot” training scenarios for officers, which forces them to make quick decisions under pressure.
In his March 2019 article, Robert Stresak, a retired executive director for POST, detailed how California’s police academies are not preparing new officers for the modern expectations we now have of our officers. Essentially, Stresak observes that the way we train new recruits, the baseline requirements, are stuck in an era of policing that just doesn’t exist anymore. The training curriculum and approach is not geared toward the fast-paced, police officer as guardian/friend/social worker/mental clinician times we live in. They just don’t match up. The needed training cannot just be limited to those in the academy. The skills needed are considered “perishable,” meaning that if you do not constantly use the skills or train on them, they will diminish over time. Therefore, there must be ongoing training throughout an officer’s career.
In order to have our training meet the expectations that the public has for us, we must ensure that every officer has access to regular high-quality training. That means money. It also means that political will is needed to make it happen. Now is the time for our state leaders to invest the money and time to ensure POST has the resources to create a modern, dynamic approach to police training. We need SB230 to be enacted into law and fully funded.
Our elected officials and the public must be realistic. This will not happen overnight. In order to get officers trained, they must be taken out of the field. In order for that to happen, our law enforcement agencies must be sufficiently staffed. Chronic understaffing and a national police hiring crisis conspire against any department’s best efforts to train their officers or deputies. In San Francisco, for example, after more than two years of implementing critical incident training to handle mental health situations, over 50% of the force has yet to be trained.
California’s law enforcement officers are actively engaged in achieving the goal of fewer uses of force. We know that strong policies combined with access to ongoing high-quality training will help achieve that goal. However, you cannot have one without the other. That’s why SB 230 and the funding to implement its goals must be put in place. Otherwise, we’re left with words on paper that will not protect the lives of either police officers, nor the community members we serve.
About the authors
Grant Ward is president of the San Bernardino County Sheriff's Employee Benefit Association and board member of Protect California.
Paul Kelly is president of the United Coalition of Public Safety and president of the San Jose Police Officers Association.