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To reduce the use of force by California police, two Democrats began with competing approaches.

Assemblywoman Shirley Weber, a firebrand from a liberal San Diego district, aimed to crack down by setting a tougher standard for justifiable police shootings.

Sen. Anna Caballero, a centrist who flipped a red Central Valley district blue, introduced a police-backed vision to reduce deadly force through improved officer training.

Yet as mothers—one African American, the other Latina—both lawmakers have had remarkably similar experiences in one respect: They instructed their teenage sons to cautiously navigate encounters with police, and they ultimately felt the police did not treat their sons fairly.

“It’s a difficult conversation to have,” Caballero said in an interview for Force of Law, a CALmatters podcast following California’s effort this year to reduce police shootings.

“As a woman of color you have to tell your boys … ‘I don’t care what’s going on … You’re going to follow the instructions, and you’re going to do exactly what they say, because they’re not going to know you, and they’re going to see you as a Mexican kid.’”

In the same episode, Weber recalls her son being stopped by police on the campus of San Diego State University, where she was a professor of Africana studies.

“They would go through his car, sit him on the curb,… and then they’d eventually go to the glove compartment and realize, ‘Oh, this truck is registered to Shirley Weber,’” she said. “And immediately, everybody would get nervous, because they knew I was going to call the police … for the campus and say, ‘Why are you still stopping my son, when you haven’t stopped anybody else? He wasn’t driving fast. He didn’t run a light. He was just coming out of the gym exercising, and you stop him.’”

Weber’s bill, now advancing through the Legislature, would declare that police use of force is allowed only when “necessary in defense of human life.” That’s a steeper standard than prosecutors apply now, which says police can shoot when doing so is “reasonable.”

That bill initially faced fierce police opposition, and has been amended into a compromise between law enforcement and civil rights advocates. The American Civil Liberties Union still champions the bill; Black Lives Matter withdrew its support; and police groups shifted from fighting it to being “neutral.”

Now it has become a companion to Caballero’s police-sponsored bill, which would require all law enforcement departments in California to adopt policies stating that officers must carry out their duties, including the use of force, “in a manner that is fair and unbiased.” It also would require basic officer training to include lessons on cultural competency and overcoming bias.

California lawmakers have been wrestling with how to respond following the death of Stephon Clark, a black man who was unarmed when Sacramento Police shot him in his grandparents’ backyard, mistaking the cell phone he was holding for a gun.

But the issue is much broader than one incident: The debate in the Capitol reflects growing concern about the disproportionate toll police shootings take on people of color. In California, 63 percent of the people killed in 2017 were African American or Latino, according to the state Department of Justice. Together, those two groups make up 46 percent of the state’s population.

Nor are Weber and Caballero the only politicians who have shared how profoundly personal the issue is for them. The debate has prompted anguished lawmakers to speak about their own encounters with police or their experiences as former officers, their fears about the safety of their relatives who wear a badge or their worries that their loved ones could be victimized by someone wearing a badge.

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

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For an hour and a half Wednesday morning, May 29, California lawmakers lined up to speak for or against—mostly for—one of the most high-profile bills of the year. One member of the Assembly, a former state cop, choked back tears as he wrestled with the implications of his vote.

But when the rolls opened on Assembly Bill 392, which would make it harder for police to legally justify killing a civilian, the tally wasn’t even close: The Assembly passed the bill, 68-0, with 12 members abstaining.

Wednesday’s vote pushes California one step closer to enacting use-of-force standards that would be among the strictest in the country. If AB 392 is signed into law, police would only be able to use lethal force if “necessary” to defend human life.

The current standard, established by the U.S. Supreme Court, allows the lethal use of force if the split-second decision to pull the trigger is “reasonable.”

Introduced by Assemblywoman Shirley Weber from San Diego, the bill is a product of a long political tug-o’-war. On one side are criminal-justice advocates, including the American Civil Liberties Union, which has argued that current law allows police officers to justify all but the most flagrant misconduct. On the other are law-enforcement groups, which have said that a stricter use-of-force standard would allow prosecutors to second-guess difficult policing decisions in often-dangerous situations.

But most of the state’s major law enforcement groups are no longer actively opposing the bill, the result of an amendment last week. An earlier version of the bill defined “necessary” use of force as lacking any “reasonable alternative,” but that phrasing was stripped. Police groups argued that the “no reasonable alternative” would give prosecutors too much leeway to question every decision after the fact.

At a press conference after the vote, Weber insisted that the amendments had not substantially weakened the bill’s civil-liberty safeguards. But the change seems to have helped clear the way for Wednesday’s vote among officials ordinarily allied with law enforcement, with most moderate Democrats and 9 of the chamber’s 19 Republicans voting in favor.

“In my entire elected experience, never has a bill consumed my thinking as this has,” said Assemblyman Tom Lackey, a Republican and former California Highway Patrol officer who paused a number of times throughout his speech to collect himself.

He recalled a former colleague, “someone who was a very big part of my life,” who had killed someone while in the line of duty—and, struggling with the guilt, later took his own life. But Lackey said that he would support the bill, because, he argued, it offered a balanced approach.

Jim Gallagher, a Republican from Yuba City, also spoke in favor of the bill, saying that with the new amendments, it represents a “reasonable compromise.”

Devon Mathis, a Republican from Visalia, was initially the only Republican to vote “no” before switching his vote to an abstention. He argued that a lack of respect for police officers was the source of many civilian killings.

“We teach our youth ‘no means no,'” he said. “But when are we going to teach them, ‘stop means stop,’ ‘freeze means freeze’?”

That argument prompted a fierce response from Assemblyman Mike Gipson, a Democrat from Compton.

“I listen to all of you with your commentaries and words, but you don’t have to have my kind of experience,” said Gipson, who is African American, his voice reverberating around the chamber. “You don’t live where I live or grow up where I grew up.”

Weber, also an African American, said that the bill was part of a “400-year challenge” for racial justice in the United States. She closed by dedicating the bill to her two grandchildren. When the vote was called, criminal-justice advocates stood in the balcony and sang “This Land is Your Land.”

The bill now progresses to the Senate, where a similar version of the proposal died in committee last year. But this time around, the bill has the public support of the Democratic President Pro Tem Toni Atkins of San Diego, who stood beside Weber at Wednesday’s press conference.

Earlier this week, the state Senate passed a police-backed “companion” bill unanimously. The proposal by Democratic Sen. Anna Caballero from Salinas would provide more use-of-force training to police.

Learn more about these two bills and about the legal, political and human dimensions of this debate by subscribing to Laurel Rosenhall’s podcast, Force of Law. CALmatters.org is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media venture explaining California policies and politics.

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Even as a landmark California bill meant to prevent police shootings passed through its first committee on Tuesday, April 9, fault lines among Democrats began to emerge—suggesting the measure will likely change as it moves through the Legislature.

How much it will change, though, was not yet clear.

After emotional, standing-room-only testimony from Californians whose loved ones have been killed by police, and a sheriff’s deputy who survived being shot by a gunman who killed her colleague, the Assembly Public Safety committee passed Assembly Bill 392 on a party-line vote. But three of the panel’s six Democrats said they were dissatisfied with the bill in its current form. They asked civil-rights groups that support the bill and law-enforcement groups that oppose it to keep working toward common ground.

“It is incumbent upon each of us to look at the safety of the public, both law enforcement and the community members that are out on the streets every day,” said Assemblywoman Rebecca Bauer-Kahan, a Democrat from Orinda.

“The pendulum has swung too far in one direction such that we aren’t protecting and holding accountable those who are taking life from our community members. I do have serious concerns that the text of this (bill) swings the pendulum too far in the other direction, because the sanctity of the life of our law enforcement is equally as important.”

Assemblywoman Shirley Weber said she would work to reach a compromise before the bill reaches the Assembly floor.

“We are committed to having a piece of legislation that makes a difference and that does provide a balance,” said the San Diego Democrat whose bill would change the legal standard for justifying police use of deadly force.

Her bill—which is backed by the American Civil Liberties Union and numerous civil-rights groups—was prompted by the death last year of Stephon Clark. He was not armed, and Sacramento police killed him after mistaking the cellphone he was holding for a gun. Last month, the Sacramento district attorney announced she would not press charges, because the officers acted legally.

Clark’s case has re-ignited anger among many, with evidence that black and brown men are unfairly targeted by police—a message that was carried into the Capitol by scores of Californians who packed the hearing room and spilled out into the hallway, wearing T-shirts commemorating slain loved ones, or emblazoned with the hashtag #LetUsLive.

Weber’s bill would make sweeping changes to the laws that determine when California police can use deadly force. It says police could shoot only when it’s necessary to prevent death or serious injury, and would require they use other tactics in many situations.

That would go beyond the standard set by the U.S. Supreme Court, which says police can use force when a reasonable officer in the same circumstance would do the same thing. Law-enforcement groups said that a law that deviates from the reasonable standard would subject officers to greater danger while performing an already dangerous job.

“I was fighting for my life and fighting to protect complete strangers when I chose to stand between the gunman and the employees and patrons. The thought of having to second-guess my actions in that moment is frightening,” said Julie Robertson, a Sacramento deputy sheriff who watched her colleague get killed by a gunman when they responded to a disturbance at an auto-parts store last year.

“My only intention is to protect and save lives. How is it that I would be questioned and judged by the ones who live so distant from the dangers we inherently face each day?”

Though law-enforcement groups are largely opposed to Weber’s bill, several said they would keep working with her to find common ground. Police groups have backed competing legislation, Senate Bill 230, that focuses on updating department policies on the use of force and increasing training for officers. It will likely get its first hearing later this month.

Follow this issue as it moves through the Legislature this year with CALmatters’ podcast Force of Law. CALmatters.org is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media venture explaining California policies and politics.

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