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Calif. Assembly approves police UOF reform bill

The bill has set one of the tightest UOF standards for police in the country

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Alexei Koseff
San Francisco Chronicle

SACRAMENTO — After a year of protest and contentious negotiations, the state Assembly approved legislation Wednesday to tighten the rules for when police officers can open fire on suspects in California.

The unanimous vote to pass AB392 came after a deal last week between law enforcement groups and civil liberties advocates that cleared the way for the state to adopt one of the tightest use-of-force standards in the country. The bill now goes to the Senate.

It would direct police to “use deadly force only when necessary in defense of human life” and, when possible, to use techniques to de-escalate the situation before shooting. It does not explicitly define what would be considered “necessary,” though courts could consider the actions of both the officer and the suspect when determining whether the force was justified.

Current law on police use of force, established by a pair of U.S. Supreme Court cases, considers whether a “reasonable” officer in similar circumstances would have acted the same way.

Democratic Assemblywoman Shirley Weber of San Diego, the American Civil Liberties Union of California and activists whose family members were killed by law enforcement began pushing for changes last year, following the fatal shooting by Sacramento police of Stephon Clark in March 2018. The unarmed 22-year-old, holding only a cell phone, was killed in his grandmother’s backyard in south Sacramento, generating national outrage. The Sacramento County district attorney declined to charge the officers.

“Police officers should never take a human life when there is an alternative,” Weber said Thursday. She dedicated the vote to her two grandsons, ages 7 and 5, telling colleagues that she never wanted to have a conversation with them about how they needed to be careful around law enforcement.

“This is a 400-year challenge to an African American in this country, because of the definition of our lives and the vulnerability of African Americans, whether it was dealing with law enforcement, whether it was dealing with lynch mobs,” Weber said. “Our lives were always precarious and could easily be taken without any justice or anyone fighting back.”

The measure originally faced intense opposition from law enforcement organizations, which argued that the “necessary” standard would put officers in danger by causing them to second-guess their actions.

But those groups dropped their objections last week when Weber scaled back some of the language, including a requirement that officers exhaust all alternatives before opening fire. Gov. Gavin Newsom, who held a private meeting with law enforcement representatives, and legislative leaders helped guide the two sides to a compromise.

“AB392 now reflects the shared experiences, perspectives and expertise from everyone at the table, from families and communities to the officers who have sworn to serve and protect them,” Ron Lawrence, president of the California Police Chiefs Association, said in a statement.

A second bill, SB230, backed by law enforcement to increase training for officers and strengthen the requirements for what departments must include in their use-of-force policy, passed unanimously in the Senate on Tuesday and now goes to the Assembly.

Lawmakers debated AB392 for nearly an hour and a half Wednesday before the vote, where it passed 67-0. Two members who had voted against the bill on the floor later changed their position to not voting.

Assemblyman Tom Lackey, a Palmdale (Los Angeles County) Republican and former California Highway Patrol officer, said through tears that “in my entire elected experience, never has a bill consumed my thinking as this has.” He expressed his concern that changing the use-of-force standard could “make law enforcement unnecessary victims,” but ultimately voted for AB392.

Lackey shared the story of a colleague who was shot on duty and “was never the same individual.”

“Deadly force is rarely called upon, but when it is, it is the most critical thing that can happen in one’s life,” he said. “We are not predators, folks.”


©2019 the San Francisco Chronicle

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