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Last updateMon, 20 Apr 2020 1pm

To understand California’s climate-change challenge, look no further than its popular ride-hailing companies.

Uber, Lyft and other companies make up a tiny piece of the biggest greenhouse-gas polluter in the state: transportation. Yet their contribution to climate-warming emissions is outsized, drawing attention from researchers and lawmakers and raising an ambitious question: How can the state rein in emissions from gig economy companies built on drivers who own their vehicles?

The latest strike against Uber and Lyft comes from the Union of Concerned Scientists, an advocacy group that published a report in late February showing ride-hailing trips release 69 percent more climate-warming emissions than the walking, biking, transit and other car trips they displace. The findings support California’s own analysis, which concluded ride-hailing increases carbon dioxide pollution by 50 percent for every mile a passenger travels, compared to when they drive themselves.

The state took action in 2018, passing a first-of-its-kind law to curb that carbon pollution. It tasked the California Air Resources Board with setting targets to increase electric-vehicle miles within ride-hailing companies and to cut carbon dioxide for every mile a ride-hailing passenger travels. The California Public Utilities Commission must then enforce those rules when they take effect, which is slated for 2023.

California’s cars, trucks, planes and trains produce about 40 percent of the state’s greenhouse gas emissions. Ride-hailing makes up a small fraction of that, accounting for 1.2 percent of the miles Californians travel by car. Still, the issue illustrates a much bigger challenge, said Daniel Sperling, director of the Institute of Transportation Studies at UC Davis and a member of California’s air board.

“In some cases, we’re picking on them, with laws and rules like this. But on the other hand, it’s kind of a first step towards doing good, sustainable transportation policy,” Sperling told CalMatters. “They’re the guinea pigs.”


Why Is California Regulating Ride-Hailing?

Ride-hailing vehicles don’t pollute more than the rest of the cars in the state, but the distance they travel between rides makes them a problem, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists and the air board.

In fact, the ride-hailing fleet is more fuel-efficient on average, since it tends to consist of newer cars, more hybrids and more passenger cars rather than light trucks, according to a December report from the Air Resources Board.

While travelers driving themselves tend to go directly to a location, those working for ride-hailing companies drive extra miles between ride requests, or on the way to pick up a passenger. Those extra miles—when the driver is alone in the car—are called “deadhead miles,” and they make up almost 40 percent of the distance driven by ride-hailing vehicles.

For some drivers, that number is even greater.

“I’m a part-time driver, and I only drive during high demand times, like Friday night, right? And still, I would say that I have about a 50 or 60 percent occupancy rate,” said Nicole Moore, a Lyft driver and organizer with Rideshare Drivers United. “On a Friday night in the middle of Hollywood, I’ll have an empty car for like half an hour. Then I’ll get a 10-minute ride, and that’s it.”

Though ride-hailing makes up a small fraction of all California car miles, its impact is visible. Ride-hailing alone is responsible for about half of San Francisco’s rise in traffic congestion from 2010 to 2016, according to the San Francisco County Transportation Authority. And it’s growing—while rides with taxis, ride-hailing and car-sharing make up less than 5 percent of vehicle miles traveled globally today, that number could be 19 percent by 2040, a report from Bloomberg New Energy Finance projected.

“We know that that sector is growing,” said Joshua Cunningham, branch chief of advanced clean cars at the Air Resources Board. “Putting in a regulation to start controlling those emissions is really important.”


Setting Statewide Goals

That’s where the law requiring the air board to set carbon dioxide and electrification standards for ride-hailing fleets comes in. Authored by Democratic state Sen. Nancy Skinner of Berkeley, it also tasks the California Public Utilities Commission with enforcing the rules and requires the ride-hailing companies to figure out how to meet them.

“We’re serious about our environmental impact,” Uber representative Austin Heyworth said at a recent air board meeting, where he expressed Uber’s support for the law and the air board’s efforts. Lyft, in a statement, said it is “striving to make every ride 100 percent electric over time.”

Others, however, are pushing a more ambitious strategy: electrify within the decade.

Environmental groups including the Union of Concerned Scientists and Sierra Club California urged the board at a January 23 meeting to evaluate what it would take to fully electrify ride-hailing fleets by 2030. The board directed staff to look into it.

Achieving zero-emission fleets, however, could be complicated in the gig economy. Because drivers typically own the vehicles they use, “fleet costsfall directly on the driver—gas, electricity, maintenance, everything and the cost of the vehicle,” said part-time Lyft driver Moore. Ride-hailing companies will have to curb emissions from cars they don’t even own.

It’s not the first time California’s heard this full-electrification idea. An early version of the 2018 bill included a requirement that ride-hailing companies shift to all zero-emission vehicles by 2030. Uber and Lyftlobbied successfully to remove it, citing concerns that low-income drivers would not be able to afford an electric vehicle, according to Streetsblog California.

Skinner said she wants to see the board take bold action in setting standards that will help clean California’s air and combat climate change.

“I want them to set the most ambitious goals possible and feasible,” Skinner said.

Still, air board staffer Cunningham called 100 percent electrification an “aggressive target.” While Cunningham was reluctant to speculate about the staff’s final assessment, he said in an email to CalMatters, “it is unlikely staff will determine that 100 percent electrification in 2030 is feasible.”


What’s Next?

Electrification is not the only way to decrease ride-hailing emissions. The Union of Concerned Scientists’ report also advocates for increasing shared rides and incentivizing trips that connect to public transit or bike or scooter shares.

Promoting connections to public transit is something the California Air Resources Board already is talking about. One idea is to reward ride-hailing companies for voluntarily connecting to transit or other low-carbon forms of transportation, like scooters or bikes, by giving them “regulatory credits” that count toward their emissions requirements, Cunningham said.

Gregory Erhardt, assistant professor at the University of Kentucky, said there are “a lot of good reasons to be skeptical” of the notion that ride-hailing benefits public transit, however. Erhardt, who has studied public transportation ridership, said ride-hailing discourages commuters from using public transit and fills the road with more cars.

After hitting a peak in 2014, transit ridership in the United States began to decline. “Now, that drop-off is strange, because this is during a period in which the economy is strong; there are more jobs; and it’s during a period in which transit agencies are really expanding their service,” Erhardt said. “We would expect ridership to be going up and not down.”

Ride-hailing may have played a part: Erhardt found that public-transit ridership decreased when ride-hailing was introduced to an area, according to a study published in 2019. (A recent uptick in national transit ridership can be attributed to isolated growth in the New York City and Washington, D.C., regions, but even there, the cities didn’t beat their record high numbers.)

While the Union of Concerned Scientists study concedes that “today, ride-hailing competes with and draws riders away from mass transit,” it argues that the companies could promote connections to it. In some areas, Lyft and Uber provide information in apps about public-transit options, and in Denver, travelers can pay for public-transit rides through the Uber app, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists report.

Erhardt said the new report offered “promising paths forward.” To make these happen, however, the companies likely will need a push. In California, as the Air Resources Board crafts its regulation, the coming year will determine just how far the state will go to address the climate impact of ride-hailing.

“There’s not an incentive, without that regulatory push,” Erhardt said. “That’s the sort of lever that we need to incentivize people to change their behavior, both the companies and the travelers.”


‘You Have to Pull Drivers Up’

Don Anair, research and deputy director of the clean vehicles program with the Union of Concerned Scientists and co-author of the recent report, said the responsibility to address ride-hailing emissions “squarely falls on the companies.” Even though they do not own the fleet vehicles, Uber and Lyft could incentivize drivers to buy or lease electric cars, he said. He also suggested the companies encourage pooled rides by adjusting prices so more passengers want to share a trip.

Some ride-hailing companies already are experimenting with initiatives to make zero-emission vehicles more available to drivers. Last year, Lyft launched an electric-vehicle rental program for drivers in Denver with a fleet of electric Kias. Rental prices increase with distance driven, starting at $230 a week.

Part-time Lyft driver Moore called these rental programs the “indentured servitude of the rideshare” because of how long it takes to earn enough money to pay off the rental fee. Representatives for Lyft and the Union of Concerned Scientists told CalMatters these rental programs could lower barriers to driving cleaner cars.

With time, the price of electric vehicles will go down, Anair said, and more used electric vehicles will enter the market. But right now, the steep up-front cost makes them unaffordable for some drivers, even though maintenance and fuel generally are cheaper than for gasoline vehicles.

That’s why Moore said that focusing solely on the cars won’t be enough. Moore drives a hybrid now, and it’s the first new car she’s ever bought. If she had to buy an electric vehicle, she “would have to quit driving and find another way to pay the bills,” Moore said. “You have to pull drivers up at the same time you pull standards up for their cars.”

CalMatters.org is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media venture explaining California policies and politics.

Published in Environment

Millions of California renters are about to receive some of the nation’s strongest protections against rent hikes and evictions—and the primary advocacy group for California landlords is OK with that.

State legislators this week passed AB 1482, a bill from Assemblyman David Chiu, a Democrat from San Francisco, which limits annual rent increases to 5 percent plus the rate of inflation (typically 2-3 percent). Modeled after a first-in-the-nation Oregon measure adopted earlier this year, the bill also requires landlords to provide a “just cause” for evicting tenants and, in some circumstances, pay for tenants to relocate.

“We do not have time for those suffering in our streets,” Chiu said after the bill’s final passage. “We do not have time for those (who are) one rent increase away from eviction and homelessness.”

Gov. Gavin Newsom has lobbied fiercely for the bill in recent weeks, arguing that the measure is necessary to combat the state’s twin gentrification and homelessness epidemics. Half of all California renters—more than 3 million households—spend more than 30 percent of their income on rent, meeting the federal government’s definition of “rent-burdened.”

“These anti-gouging and eviction protections will help families afford to keep a roof over their heads, and they will provide California with important new tools to combat our state’s broader housing and affordability crisis,” Newsom said in a statement. The bill now awaits his signature.

Here are five takeaways from the most ambitious renter-protection bill the state has passed in recent memory.

The new measure would curb extreme rent hikes, and it’s stronger than what Oregon passed. But it’s not conventional rent control.

Oregon made national headlines when it became the first state in the country to pass a statewide measure capping how much landlords could increase rents. Often characterized as rent control by the national press, the Oregon law limited yearly rent increases to 7 percent plus inflation.

Although Chiu’s bill imposes a tighter cap—5 percent plus inflation—the assemblyman has been very careful to frame the measure as “anti-rent-gouging,” as opposed to typical rent control. Fifteen California cities currently impose some form of traditional rent control on apartments, with the legally allowable rent increase hovering between 1 and 4 percent. Chiu’s bill also does nothing to prevent landlords from raising rents when a tenant leaves, a provision called “vacancy control” that is often associated with how rent control worked decades ago in places like Santa Monica and Berkeley.

“Words matter. This is not rent control. This is an anti-rent-gouging bill,” said Assemblyman Rob Bonta, Democrat from Alameda, a co-author of the bill.

So how many renters will the new California law actually help?

While landlords have access to proprietary data that can better answer that question, publicly available data can’t. A UC Berkeley study of 10 gentrifying California communities found that over a five-year period, the average yearly rent increase exceeded 10 percent about once every three years. An analysis by the real estate data company Zillow, working with admittedly incomplete data, found that about 7 percent of California renters would have benefited from Chiu’s cap in 2018. While a minority of California renters will enjoy real savings from the new law, those who do benefit are very likely to be low-income and thus most vulnerable to rent hikes.

Mike Wilkerson, an economist with ECONorthwest, which analyzed the Oregon plan with proprietary landlord data, said the majority of major rent increases in Oregon are occurring in lower-cost units. He suspects the same is true of California.

“Really, what this is doing is protecting lower-rent units, where we’re consistently seeing rents going up,” Wilkerson said shortly after the California bill was introduced. “And the benefit is preserving more units to be naturally affordable.”

Some opponents of the California legislation argue that the measure could backfire: Landlords, they say, may treat the rent cap not so much as a limit on what they can charge but as a benchmark for what they should charge—especially if they fear future unanticipated costs or having to take a tenant to eviction court.

“The large property owners can build this cost into their business because they have a lawyer on payroll,” said Sid Lakireddy, president of the California Rental Housing Association, an advocacy group for smaller landlords. “That’s not the case for mom and pop (landlords) throughout the state.”

Although the rent cap has received most of the attention, the eviction protections are arguably more controversial. And a “third rail” of California housing policy gets very lightly touched.

In most parts of California, landlords can evict a tenant without stating an explicit reason why they don’t want that renter in the property anymore.

When Gov. Gavin Newsom said in August he wanted to strengthen the rent-cap bill, he mostly meant he wanted to see “just-cause” eviction protections included. Assuming Newsom signs the bill, California landlords will have to list one of several specific reasons why they want a tenant out, such as dealing drugs from an apartment or failure to pay rent on time. Landlords who want to convert a unit into a condo or move a family member in will have to fork over one month’s rent to the displaced tenant for relocation assistance.

Marcos Segura, an eviction defense lawyer with the nonprofit Central California Legal Services, said a relatively small minority of his clients in the Central Valley are evicted without cause. Most of the time, landlords accuse them of not paying rent or otherwise breaking the lease.

But he says “just cause” protections could prove beneficial in preventing landlord retaliation. When landlords do evict tenants without cause, he says, it’s often because tenants have been complaining about shabby living conditions.

“If you take that option away from landlords, where they can serve no-cause eviction notices, in those cases, it would make all the difference in the world,” Segura said.

To compromise with landlords and developers, Chiu exempted an increasingly popular swath of California rental housing from his rent cap: single-family homes. While single-family homes owned by investment firms would be subject to the new measure, those owned by “mom and pop” landlords—the vast majority of the single-family-home rental market—would be exempted.

Even with that carve-out, Chiu’s bill represents the largest expansion of renter protections in recent California history, applying to 8 million renters, according to estimates from the lawmaker’s office.

Many of the renters live in cities that already have local controls but aren’t eligible for it. A state law passed in 1995, colloquially known as “Costa-Hawkins,” bans cities from expanding rent control to units built after 1995 and in some cities limits control to units built well before then. In Los Angeles, for example, rent control can apply only to units built before 1978.

Chiu’s bill would apply to all eligible California rental units built at least 15 years ago, meaning units built as recently as 2005 would be subject to rent caps.

That would be a major shift in California housing policy. Costa-Hawkins has been considered a “third rail” for the California Legislature for decades. While AB 1482 doesn’t actually touch the language of the 1995 law—cities would still be banned from expanding tighter rent limits on newer properties—millions of new housing units would be subject to a legal limit on rent increases.

Developers say the measure shouldn’t impede new construction, and they don’t oppose it. But no signature housing-production legislation will accompany the rent cap.

For those concerned with California’s million-unit housing shortage, the most compelling argument against a rent cap was that developers kept saying it could impede the construction of new housing.

While California apartment builders generally forecast annual rent increases of 2 to 3 percent when lining up financing for their projects, the flexibility to raise rents to what the market can bear helps persuade investors to plow money into the often uncertain and time-consuming process of building new housing.

But even before Gov. Newsom’s public comments, the California Building Industry Association—the premier lobbying group for California developers—announced it would not oppose the bill after it exempted new construction from the rent cap for 15 years.

“The new construction exemption is key, because it’s hard to get investors to invest in multifamily units on a 10-year window; it just doesn’t pencil out,” said Dan Dunmoyer, head of the group. “Fifteen years is a balance of what is doable for attracting capital. Anything less than that just makes it harder to bring investors to California.”

The organization’s withdrawal of opposition was also notable, because it has had mixed success in pushing through legislation it says would ease regulatory burdens and allow for more housing. Many Capitol insiders thought packaging a pro-development bill with a pro-tenant bill was a logical way to ensure that both could become law.

In Oregon, a bill that allowed developers to build fourplexes in areas zoned exclusively for single-family homes was passed shortly after the rent-cap bill. A similar developer-backed effort in California, SB 50, fizzled this year.

When making public comments about strengthening the rent cap bill, Newsom also publicly embraced SB 330, a bill from Sen. Nancy Skinner, a Democrat from Berkeley, that would limit many of the tools developers say cities use to stymie new housing.

Dunmoyer says Skinner’s proposal is a step in the right direction. But he admits it wasn’t the big boost to housing production that developers had hoped for, considering Newsom’s audacious goal of 3.5 million new housing units by 2025.

“I’m not surprised (the rent cap bill passed) because I’m a political analyst who looks at the dynamics—it’s easier to regulate than reform,” Dunmoyer said.

This is a big win for Newsom, who angered a key interest group to make it happen.

Gov. Gavin Newsom kind of needed this.

Shortly after a state ballot initiative that would have allowed cities to expand rent control failed overwhelmingly last November, Newsom (who very quietly opposed it) said he wanted to broker a deal between tenant groups and landlords. He reiterated his desire in February in his inaugural State of the State speech, calling on lawmakers to send him a package of renter protections he could sign into law this year.

Newsom’s late efforts to strengthen the bill by adding eviction restrictions and tightening the rent cap flipped opposition among key interest groups. While he was able to secure a compromise from the state’s biggest landlord lobby, he angered the powerful California Association of Realtors, who thought the governor was breaking a deal they had struck on a softer version of the rent cap.

The Realtors are a major source of fundraising for California Democrats, contributing nearly $1.38 million in campaign funds to sitting Democratic lawmakers and $2.5 million to the state Democratic Party since 2017. Since the stronger bill was introduced, Realtors have flooded Democratic lawmakers with phone calls and emails.

How Newsom’s intervention will affect future relations between the Realtors and state Democratic leaders remains to be seen.

The Realtors have a reputation for holding a grudge, no matter the party involved. After Rep. Mimi Walters, a Republican from Irvine, voted for a Trump tax-reform plan the Realtors opposed, the state and national realtor advocacy groups spent $3 million supporting her 2018 Democratic opponent, Katie Porter. Porter won.

The big landlord lobby is OK with this. Which could hurt the prospects for rent control at the ballot box in 2020.

The California Apartment Association and its allies spent more than $70 million against a statewide rent-control initiative in 2018, defeating it by nearly 20 points. That victory gave landlords a major rhetorical advantage in pushing back against Chiu’s bill: Californians had already been given an opportunity to expand rent control and voted it down.

So why cave now, less than a year removed from that decisive victory?

Progressive firebrand Michael Weinstein, president of the Los Angeles-based AIDS Healthcare Foundation, is currently collecting signatures for yet another statewide rent-control initiative for the November 2020 ballot. Weinstein maintains Chiu didn’t go far enough to protect tenants. However, landlords can now say lawmakers have already moved to curb excessive rent increases and egregious eviction practices without endangering new development.

“We will argue the state has already spoken on this topic; we will argue this is a balance; we will argue everyone came to the table and found some common ground finally for a temporary solution,” said Debra Carlton, lobbyist for the California Apartment Association.

Landlords may have also gained assurances from key Democratic leaders that they may oppose, or simply mute their support for, rent control in 2020. Asked by the Los Angeles Times whether the California Apartment Association had requested that Gov. Gavin Newsom oppose Weinstein’s potential initiative, Carlton gave no comment.

CalMatters.org is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media venture explaining California policies and politics. 

Published in Politics

The city of Santa Monica plans to give money to hundreds of additional seniors to help them with the rent—expanding a pilot program that offered between $200 and $660 a month to nearly two-dozen seniors. 

“We’d like to expand this program tenfold,” said Andy Agle, Santa Monica’s housing and economic development director, about the program that launched last year. “We’re taking our program from $200,000 to $2 million a year. That’s a huge ramp-up.”

Agle said he anticipates Santa Monica will now be able to help 250 to 400 senior households with the added cash.

Although Santa Monica saw a 3 percent rise in senior homelessness over the last year, no one in its rental subsidies pilot program suffered that fate.

“It’s really showing some success,” Agle said. 

Kaye, 70, who didn’t want her last name used, has been part of that program, known as Preserving Our Diversity, since its inception.

“If it weren’t for the city of Santa Monica helping me, I would probably, by now, have been evicted and on the street,” Kaye said.

Before getting the monthly checks from Santa Monica, Kaye said she would skip meals. She said she didn’t have enough money for food after paying her rent and bills on her $1,000 monthly Social Security check.

“Life is oh-so-much better,” Kaye said. “I haven’t been to a food bank but twice in the last year.”

Santa Monica officials had been hearing stories about seniors trapped in poverty with no way to make up the gap between Social Security checks and their food, housing and medical costs. Minimal rent increases in rent-controlled Santa Monica were pushing the elderly to the brink.

The anecdotes echoed statewide figures—20 percent of the state’s elderly live in poverty. Nearly half can’t afford basic expenses. And senior homelessness in most major counties is on the rise.

To help cash-poor seniors stay housed, Santa Monica cut checks to them or their landlords.

“What I’m pleased about, and surprised by a bit, is we haven’t received broader pushback from people that say, ‘How can you give people money without strings attached? That’s irresponsible,’” Agle said.

Democratic state Sen. Scott Wiener of San Francisco said people empathize: “People every day see other people struggling with housing. They see it in the most visible, way which is people living on the streets. They want to help, especially low-income seniors.”

Wiener added that until California can close its deficit of 3.5 million housing units, he supports rental subsidies.

Democratic state Sen. Nancy Skinner of Berkeley said that approach inspired her to successfully push for the state to set aside $2 billion in this year’s budget to prevent homelessness. Cities and counties can use that money toward homeless services and emergency rental assistance. She hopes some of that money will be offered to the elderly.

“Emergency rental assistance is the best solution—far better than trying to deal with the problem once they’ve lost their home,” Skinner said.

Places such as Sacramento County are working on their own solutions to senior homelessness. Through a partnership with the nonprofit Volunteers of America, Sacramento County has invested $500,000 into converting a dilapidated motel into senior housing.

“We’ve gotten very creative in the types of housing that we offer specifically to our older adult population,” said Meghan Marshall, flexible supportive rehousing manager.

Peter Lynn, the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority’s executive director, applauded Santa Monica’s rental subsidies—with a caveat.

“When the economy is reasonably strong, when property taxes are coming in, when sales taxes are coming in, when income taxes are coming in—there is reasonably good support for that kind of thing,” Lynn said.

But he worried about long-term sustainability: “The test is going to be when we see a downturn, a recession. where we see reductions in tax revenues for municipalities. That’s when the pressure on those kinds of programs comes very strongly.”

Santa Monica officials have taken into account a predicted economic downturn. Agle is confident this is an investment worth maintaining for now.

“We can’t turn our backs on these long-standing community members, and it’s our obligation to help take care of them,” Agle said. “And I think that goes beyond Santa Monica. We, as members of the California community, should be looking on a statewide basis of who’s falling through the cracks and what we can do to help them.”

The California Dream series is a statewide media collaboration of CalMatters, KPBS, KPCC, KQED and Capital Public Radio with support from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and the James Irvine Foundation.

Published in Local Issues

Cops have a lot of pull in the California Capitol, and over the decades, that’s added up to this startling reality: The Golden State now goes further than many states in terms of protecting police from public scrutiny.

It’s a stark contrast to the state’s “left coast” image. On abortion rights, gun control and climate change, California has embraced some of the most liberal policies in the nation.

But even with a statehouse controlled entirely by Democrats, California laws are friendlier to law enforcement—and less transparent to the public—than those in Wisconsin and Florida, states with Republican governors and legislatures.

One explanation is that politicians from both parties seek police endorsements to help them sway voters. Polling from last year showed that two-thirds of Californians think their local police are doing a good job controlling crime.

Another is that labor unions representing officers donate generously to elect officials at every level of government. Three major statewide law enforcement groups—the Peace Officers Research Association of California, the California Statewide Law Enforcement Association and the California Correctional Peace Officers Association—together poured $5.7 million into California political campaigns in the last election cycle, including giving $475,000 to the California Democratic Party and $168,500 to the California Republican Party. That doesn’t include the money dozens of local police unions around the state give to politicians.

As cities across the nation were roiled by police killings in recent years, the Legislature quietly killed proposals to create more police accountability. Now, as California’s capital city responds to the killing of Stephon Clark—the unarmed black man shot on March 18 by Sacramento police, who seemingly mistook the cellphone he held for a gun—some of those failed bills are being re-introduced.

California police shot 162 people dead last year, according to a tally by The Washington Post—which means the state has 16 percent of the nation’s killings by police, but only 12 percent of its population. Activists with the Black Lives Matter movement say legislation now proposed in California is “many years behind” and that Democrats in the Legislature have not been responsive to black communities on police issues.

“What happens is that the police unions (and) the police lobbyists come out in full force and then legislators who are afraid of their campaign coffers being interrupted side with law enforcement,” said Cat Brooks, founder of the Anti Police-Terror Project based in Oakland.

Police unions see it differently: Reactionary legislators propose unworkable bills, and then law enforcement helps them understand why the bills are bad ideas.

“We have been fortunate to have common sense prevail at the end, as opposed to the stuff that’s proposed at the beginning,” said Tom Saggau, a spokesman for the Los Angeles Police Protective League, a labor union.

When it comes to making campaign contributions, police are like most interest groups that work to influence public policy, said Brian Marvel, president of Peace Officers Research Association of California, an advocacy group.

“That’s politics in America,” he said.

Though the money helps, Marvel said, it is not the only reason police have influence in Sacramento: “Public safety resonates across both sides. People want to be safe in their home; people want to be safe to walk down the street; people respect law enforcement.”

Here are three ways in which California law protects police more than some states do—and one proposed law that would give it the nation’s toughest standard to justify police using deadly force.


California keeps police misconduct records secret

In most states, the public has at least some access to records that detail misconduct by police officers. Not so in California.

The Golden State is among 23 states that do not make discipline of police officers available through a public-records request—and one of just three states with laws specifically making police personnel records confidential, according to an investigation by New York public radio WNYC.

The secrecy—which dates back to a law Gov. Jerry Brown signed in 1978—makes it nearly impossible for Californians to know if the police who patrol their streets have ever been disciplined for excessive use of force.

“Law enforcement is the only public-employee group for which we have no access to the records. (With) every other employment category, you pretty much have full access under the Public Records Act,” said state Sen. Nancy Skinner, a Berkeley Democrat. “Good policing requires community trust.”

Her Senate Bill 1421 would make officers’ records public in three situations: when they fire a gun or use force resulting in serious injury or death; when they’ve engaged in sexual assault on the job; or when they’ve been dishonest in investigating a crime, such as by filing false reports or concealing evidence.

Similar legislation failed in 2016, facing stiff opposition from law enforcement groups who argued that it amounted to an invasion of privacy. It’s too soon to say if Skinner’s bill will meet the same fate, but at least one police group says it’s working to find common ground with her.

“We are trying to find how we can release some information once it’s gone through its administrative process or the courts,” said Marvel, a San Diego police officer who is president of the Peace Officers Research Association. “I think we can agree on a system of transparency that allows the community to have faith in their police department.”

Other law enforcement groups say there’s no need to open personnel records. Gary Ingemunson, an attorney for the LA police union, called Skinner’s proposal “a can of worms.” He said existing procedures—through the courts and citizen-review boards—provide sufficient accountability.

“Why are we opening it up? So the newspapers can have a field day?” Ingemunson said. “What’s really important is that the people who need to know have a way to find out. … It’s already as open as it needs to be, in our view.”


California lets local law enforcement police themselves

When police kill, it’s generally up to the local district attorney’s office to determine if it’s a crime. But sometimes they rely on investigations conducted by the cop’s own department, and research has shown that prosecutors rarely file criminal charges against officers involved in on-the-job shootings.

Police say that’s because the vast majority of their shootings are legally justified, done only when officers perceive an imminent threat. Critics say it’s because cops and prosecutors, who work together closely and spend money to help each other win elections, are too cozy.

Four other states require that a state agency—instead of local prosecutors—conduct the investigation when police conduct results in death. Wisconsin passed such a law in 2014 after a man whose son was killed by police used a $1.75 million settlement to lobby for the change.

In California, lawmakers have rejected the idea twice. But Sacramento Democratic Assemblyman Kevin McCarty—spurred on by the recent announcement that Sacramento police asked the state Attorney General to investigate the death of Stephon Clark—plans to re-introduce a bill requiring the state Justice Department to investigate deaths and serious injury caused by police.

“It raises a bigger question: why not for all the shootings?” McCarty said. “Having an independent third-party law enforcement agency come and do the investigation can bring about more transparency and more trust in the process.”

McCarty points to a report by the Stanford Criminal Justice Center that describes the Wisconsin law as a model California should follow. But Tanya Faison, a leader of Black Lives Matter in Sacramento, said such a change is far short of a panacea.

“There need to be oversight boards that reflect our community that do the investigations when police officers kill people,” Faison said. “This would move the needle in the right direction, but there is more work to do.”

Police opposed McCarty’s bill last year, saying people who mistrust local law enforcement are unlikely to have more confidence in state-level authorities. And they challenge the assumption that investigators can’t set aside their personal relationships to conduct a fair inquiry.

“What McCarty is saying is that these officers are unprofessional and can’t do their job,” said Marvel. “I don’t buy into that premise.”

California Attorney General Xavier Becerra chimed in with support only after last year’s bill was watered down to a study. Lawmakers then killed it in the Senate Appropriations Committee, where bills can die without a public vote.

Asked this month if he would support McCarty’s effort this year, Becerra was noncommittal. “What you want to make sure is that you have an investigation that withstands the test of transparency, scrutiny and accountability. That can be accomplished in any number of ways,” he said.

Establishing a unit in the state Department of Justice to investigate police shootings would cost between $8.5 million and $10 million a year, according to an analysis of prior legislation. McCarty said he’s exploring whether his proposal can be inserted into this year’s state budget.


California has no power to revoke a cop’s certification

State law says that anyone convicted of a felony cannot serve in law enforcement. Beyond that, though, California’s system for getting rid of bad cops is highly decentralized. The state has more than 600 law-enforcement agencies, and each one can decide if—short of a felony conviction—an officer’s misconduct is a firing offense.

It’s the opposite of how most of the country regulates police, according to research by Roger Goldman, a retired professor at the Saint Louis University School of Law. He said that 45 states have a centralized system for revoking an officer’s professional certification—and most of them do it for less than a felony conviction.

“States like Georgia, Florida and North Carolina are decertifying cops hand over fist, and California is decertifying nobody, other than if convicted of a felony,” Goldman said.

It wasn’t always like this. California used to allow its law-enforcement regulatory agency—known as the Commission on Peace Officer Standards and Training—to yank a cop’s certification. But in 2003, police unions lobbied the Legislature to take away that power, and Gov. Gray Davis signed the bill a month before he was recalled.

The other states with a decentralized system like California’s are Hawaii, New Jersey, Massachusetts and Rhode Island, Goldman said. “What do they have in common? Very blue. Very strong police unions. The (California) Legislature is obviously scared to death of taking on the police unions.”

Though Goldman contends that the lack of such a system makes it easier for bad cops in California to bounce from one department to another, state officials disagree. They argue that police departments here can do a background check on anyone they’re considering hiring and find out if they’ve been fired for misconduct.

“Just because California doesn’t have a process, per se, like other states (to) rescind or cancel a certificate or license, (that) doesn’t mean California takes that lightly,” said Dave Althausen, spokesman for the state regulatory agency.

It has a database that tracks every sworn officer in the state, he said, including when they were hired by a department and under what circumstances they left. If they are convicted of a felony, the law says the agency must note in their file that they are “ineligible to be a peace officer in California.”

But, Althausen acknowledged, there’s no requirement that agencies check the database when hiring a new officer.


And yet: California is now considering the nation’s toughest standards for use of deadly force

In 1989, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that police use of force is justified whenever a “reasonable officer” in the same circumstance would do the same, setting the legal standard now used in every state. It’s one reason so few cops are convicted of crimes when they kill—jurors must consider whether a reasonable officer perceiving the same threat would make the same split-second decision. If so, the killing is legally justified.

California lawmakers will consider a bill this year that would make California the only state in the nation to set a different standard—one supporters believe will make it easier to hold police accountable. Under AB 931, police could only use deadly force when “necessary” to prevent injury or death in the context of the officer’s entire encounter with a suspect—not just the moment before firing his gun. Killing would only be legally justified if other tactics, such as warnings or de-escalation, were not possible instead.

“We’re not saying that law enforcement officers can never use deadly force,” said Assemblywoman Shirley Weber, a San Diego Democrat carrying the bill with McCarty. “Deadly force can be used, but only when it is completely necessary.”

Lawyers with the American Civil Liberties Union, which is backing the bill, say the Supreme Court standard sets a minimum level of protection for civilians confronted by police, and that states can choose to set a higher bar. But Ingemunson, the lawyer for the LA police union questioned that, saying the proposed standard may violate officers’ rights under federal law.

“The theory would be that an officer also has rights, and one might be to be judged by the federal standard, not some state standard,” he said.

Police are frustrated that the bill language has not yet been made public (as of this story’s publication) and say it’s hypocritical of the ACLU to criticize law enforcement for a lack of transparency while working with legislators behind the scenes to draft a bill that would impact their profession. They also warn that the “necessary” standard might discourage police from going into dangerous situations where their help is needed.

“It would be a colossal hindrance to law enforcement in this state,” said Marvel. “It would take away our ability to react efficiently and effectively. Officers will be thinking, ‘Should I really be doing this? Should I run away?’”

Though no other states have a standard like the one California is considering, some police departments have a standard higher than the one set by the Supreme Court in their internal policies. Seth Stoughton, an assistant professor at the University of South Carolina School of Law, researched use-of-force policies in the nation’s 50 largest police departments for a paper published last year. He concluded that Los Angeles has nothing in its policy describing a continuum of the types of force that should be deployed, while Seattle has the most detailed policy, stating, in part, that officers must “use only the force necessary to perform their duties.”

“The Supreme Court case law sets a (low) floor, but not a ceiling on how agencies handle use of force internally,” Stoughton wrote.

Franklin Zimring, a professor at UC Berkeley’s law school, said the California Legislature could best impact police behavior by increasing the amount of civil damages victims may seek in lawsuits over deadly force.

“The major force in controlling, or failing to control, police use of force is the police chief,” Zimring said. “What state law can do is … make excessive use of deadly force expensive enough to motivate police chiefs.”

CALmatters.org is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media venture explaining California policies and politics.

Published in Local Issues