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11 Apr 2019

Avoiding Fatal Encounters: A Nationally Watched Police-Shooting Bill Moves Forward—but Many Legislators Think It Goes Too Far

Written by  Laurel Rosenhall, CALmatters
Stevante Clark, whose brother Stephon Clark was killed by Sacramento police in 2018, lobbies at the Capitol for a bill to limit police use of deadly force. Stevante Clark, whose brother Stephon Clark was killed by Sacramento police in 2018, lobbies at the Capitol for a bill to limit police use of deadly force. Laurel Rosenhall/CALmatters

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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