California Now Has One of the Strongest Police Use-of-Force Laws in the Country

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Gov. Gavin Newsom signs AB 392 "California Act to Save Lives" with family members and advocates by his side along with the author Assemblymember, Dr. Shirley Weber (D-San Diego) and legistlative leaders Aug. 19, 2019. Photo by Robert Maryland, CBM.

Thanks to the “Moral Strength” of Black Legislative Caucus Chair Shirley Weber Who Led Effort

On Monday, Gov. Gavin Newsom signed into law one of the strongest measures in the country intended to deter police officers from killing civilians while pursuing criminal suspects.

After a grueling yearlong process that survived bitter fights, tense negotiations and impassioned speeches, on July 18 the Senate voted 29-1 to pass AB 392, the California Act to Save Lives.

In May, law enforcement organizations, once staunch opponents of the bill, held a private meeting with the governor and members of the Legislature and reached common ground on some of the language in the legislation. Advocates of the bill said those amendments helped the bill gain wider support among members of the Assembly and Senate, many of whom were strongly opposed when the proposal was first introduced.

Assemblymember Shirley Weber (D-San Diego) introduced the legislation she co-authored with Assemblymember Kevin McCarty (D- Sacramento). Both lawmakers are African American.

Inspired, in part, by the 2018 shooting of Stephon Alonzo Clark, an unarmed 22-year-old African-American man, by po­lice in Sacramento, the bill pro­poses changes to California’s penal code regarding “justifi­able homicides” by “peace of­ficers.” Its language requires cops to only use deadly force “in defense of human life” when a suspect poses an “imminent threat of death or serious bodily injury to themselves or others.”

Senate Pro Tem Toni Atkins (D-San Diego) championed the bill in the Senate.

“With so many unnecessary deaths, I think everyone agrees that we need to change how deadly force is used in Califor­nia,” said Weber, who is also chair of the California Legisla­tive Black Caucus. “We can now move a policy forward that will save lives and change the cul­ture of policing in California.”

The bill, which was initially sponsored by the civil jus­tice group Black Lives Matter (BLM), also calls for police of­ficers to rely on training and ex­haust all resources available to them, whenever possible, before shooting to kill. The bill defines “imminent harm” as a threat that must be “instantly confronted.” It rules out fear of future harm — no matter how great or likely the potential danger is.

In April, the “Act to Save Lives” cleared its first hurdle when the Assembly Public Safe­ty Committee voted 5-2 in favor of the legislation.

Shortly after, state law en­forcement groups —including the California Highway Patrol, the Peace Officers Research As­sociation of California and the California State Sheriffs’ Asso­ciation —announced that they had taken a neutral position and would no longer oppose the pro­posal after meeting with Gov. Newsom to smooth out differ­ences.

When Weber presented the revised version of AB 392 with the input of the police groups, Black Lives Matter dropped its sponsorship.

“We knew that it would be an uphill battle, especially with police associations opposing the bill,” said Melina Abdullah, co-founder of the Los Angeles chapter of Black Lives Matter. “Unfortunately, in efforts to get law enforcement to lift their opposition, the bill was so sig­nificantly amended that it is no longer the kind of meaningful legislation we can support.”

In its original form, AB 392 explicitly redefined the state’s legal standard for police officers’ use of lethal force, replacing the description “reasonable” with “necessary.” Necessary force, it spelled out, is when “there is no reasonable alternative.”

Although the word “neces­sary” remains in the current lan­guage of the law, its definition has been omitted, leaving it up to the courts to determine on a case-by-case basis.

After the revisions, the bill now requires investigators and prosecutors to consider “the totality of circumstances” lead­ing up to a police officer’s use of lethal force. Before the pass­ing of AB 392, the law only took into account the imme­diate actions taken before the shooting.

This latest iteration of AB 392 also allows for the behav­ior of the suspect to be exam­ined.

“This is an important bill, one that will help restore com­munity trust in our criminal justice system,” said Newsom. “I would like to thank Assem­blymember Weber, Senate Pro Tem Atkins, Speaker Rendon and our legislative leaders who all worked tirelessly to get us to this point.”

In California, there have been more incidents of po­lice officers using lethal force against African Americans and Latinos than in any other state. In 2017 alone, police killed 172 civilians. Latinos made up a disproportionate 47.1 percent of that total number, and Blacks accounted for 15.1 percent.

“We are proud to stand with Assemblymember Weber in support of AB 392,” said Pe­ter Bibring, Police Practices Director for The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of California. The ACLU is a leading supporter of the legis­lation.

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