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20 Aug 2019

Curbing Fatal Encounters: Gov. Newsom Signs a Landmark Police Use-of-Force Bill

Written by  Dan Morain and Laurel Rosenhall, CalMatters
Gov. Gavin Newsom speaks at the signing ceremony for police use-of-force legislation. Gov. Gavin Newsom speaks at the signing ceremony for police use-of-force legislation. Dan Morain/CalMatters

California will soon have a tougher new legal standard for the use of deadly force by police, under legislation Gov. Gavin Newsom signed yesterday, Aug, 19, that was inspired by last year’s fatal shooting of a young, unarmed man in Sacramento.

Newsom signed the legislation amid unusual fanfare, convening numerous legislators, family members of people who have died in police shootings and advocates including civil-rights leader Dolores Huerta in a courtyard at the Secretary of State’s building—used in the past for inaugurations and other formal events.

The governor contends that with Assembly Bill 392 in place, police will turn increasingly to de-escalation techniques, including verbal persuasion, weapons other than guns and other crisis-intervention methods.

“It is remarkable to get to this moment on a bill that is this controversial. But it means nothing unless we make this moment meaningful,” Newsom said after signing the legislation.

He made a point of praising law enforcement, saying the “overwhelming majority are extraordinary and honorable people.” He is planning to attend the funeral today of California Highway Patrol Officer Andre Moye Jr., who was killed by an ex-felon last week in Riverside.

Newsom also noted that the state’s current budget includes an additional $35 million for more police training, including training on ways to better handle severely mentally ill people. He said as many as a third of people shot to death by police are diagnosed with schizophrenia, bipolar disorder or some other serious illness.

“That is a tough assignment for law enforcement,” the governor said. “What’s happening on the streets of California is challenging, and law enforcement is increasingly being called to do social work.”

Kori McCoy, who attended the bill signing, was among various family members of people shot to death by police. His brother, Willie McCoy, was shot Feb. 9 while he slept at a Taco Bell in Vallejo. Six officers fired 55 rounds, hitting him more than 20 times.

“I don’t think this is going to totally change everything, but it definitely is a piece, and we’ll take it,” McCoy said about the legislation.

The law reflects a compromise between civil-rights advocates who want to limit when police can shoot, and law-enforcement groups who said earlier versions of the bill would have put officers in danger.

Under the new law, which takes effect Jan. 1, police may use deadly force only when “necessary in defense of human life.”

That’s a steeper standard than prosecutors apply now, which says officers can shoot when doing so is “reasonable.” One of the most significant changes will allow prosecutors to consider officers’ actions leading up to a shooting when deciding whether deadly force is justified.

“This will make a difference not only in California, but we know it will make a difference around the world,” said Assemblywoman Shirley Weber, the San Diego Democrat who carried the legislation.

The law doesn’t go as far as civil libertarians originally proposed, and courts will need to define what a “necessary” use of force is in future cases. The negotiations led a few early supporters, including the group Black Lives Matter, to drop their support, and major statewide law-enforcement organizations to drop their opposition. After a year of contentious testimony over how to reduce police shootings, the final version of the bill sailed through the Legislature with bipartisan support. 

Newsom’s staff helped broker the compromise, and his signature was not a surprise. In March—after Sacramento’s district attorney cleared the officers who killed Stephon Clark on March 18, 2018, in his grandparents’ backyard after mistaking the cell phone he was holding for a gun—Newsom signaled support for police reforms that “reinforce the sanctity of human life.” And in June, he said he would sign the bill as he praised advocates for “working across their differences” to forge a compromise.

“The bill is watered down; everybody knows that,” Stevante Clark, brother of Stephon Clark, told the Los Angeles Times. “But at least we are getting something done. At least we are having the conversation now.”

California police kill more than 100 people a year—at a rate higher than the national average and highest among states with populations of 8 million or more. Most of the people police kill are armed with a gun or a knife.

But when California police kill people who are not armed, the impact falls disproportionately on Latinos and African Americans. Together, those groups make up 66 percent of the unarmed people California police killed between 2016 and 2018, but about 46 percent of the state’s population.

For more on California’s attempt to reduce police shootings, please listen to CalMatters’ Force of Law podcast. It’s available here on Apple Podcasts or here on other podcasting platforms. To read the Independent’s ongoing coverage of police shootings, go hereCalMatters.org is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media venture explaining California policies and politics.

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