Within weeks after the shooting death of Stephon Clark in his grandmother’s Sacramento backyard in March, who was shot eight times by Sacramento police officers who apparently mistook a cell phone for a gun, Assemblymember Shirley Weber, D-San Diego, introduced Assembly Bill 931. AB 931 proposes sweeping changes in state standards for the use of lethal force by police. The bill seeks to overturn the basis for use of lethal force by police from what is considered "reasonable" to what is considered "necessary."
The backlash to the police killing of Clark included demonstrators closing down Highway 5 and preventing fans from attending a Sacramento Kings game, as well as emotional appeals to the Sacramento City Council to stop the killing of unarmed civilians by police.
The criticism from law enforcement organizations against AB 931 continues to be one of vigorous opposition. Police chiefs across the state have rejected the proposed law that would legally limit the use of deadly force to only those situations where there are no reasonable alternatives and there is a clear and imminent threat to the police officer or another’s person safety, that is, using deadly force only when “necessary”. Having been approved by the state Senate Public Safety Committee in June, AB 931 is on hold until the next legislative session begins on Jan. 3, 2019.
A forum on police use of force hosted by the Santa CruzCounty chapter of the ACLU on Oct. 18 brought together two police chiefs, a prominent civil rights attorney and a local public defender for a robust discussion on the issues surrounding AB 931. City of Santa Cruz Police Chief Andy Mills and Pacific Grove Police Chief Amy Christey explained their reasons for opposing AB 931, and civil rights attorney John Burris and Santa Cruz County deputy public defender Zach Schwarzbach explained their reasons for supporting it in a two-hour discussion that was at times earnest and emotional, but entirely civil and well informed.
Burris is a prominent civil rights attorney from Oakland who is most recognized for representing Rodney King in his civil rights lawsuit against the Los Angeles Police Department. Burris also represented plaintiffs in the high-profile "Oakland Riders" case, resulting in a group of four Oakland Police officers convicted of beating up suspects and planting evidence. A total of 119 people pressed civil rights lawsuits for unlawful beatings and detention, ultimately settling for $11 million and an agreement that significant reforms would be made in the Oakland Police Department, which included bringing in the U.S. Department of Justice to investigate and oversee the Oakland Police Department up to the present day.
At the forum, Burris recognized that many of the police practices required by AB 931, using time, distance, communication and available resources to deescalate dangerous situations, are already part of police training and reforms, but AB 931 “has the potential of saving a lot of lives.”
“If you make ‘reasonableness’ such a low standard, the police are under no obligation to not use force when they could have, and should have, avoided it- I think that’s where the concept of ‘necessary’ comes in with the proposed statute, which I agree with. Just because (as a police officer) I have a right to use force- and there are often no other alternatives I need to exercise before using it-then it becomes a question of training and a will to avoid lethal violence by the individual officer, which I think should be codified in law,” Burris said.
Police Chief Christey disagreed. “I don’t think it should be passed. I think the proposed law is riddled with potential unintended consequences, and will not necessarily reduce the use force but will increase lawsuits and possibly increase violence against police officers,” Christey said. Chief Mills agreed that he thought AB931, with increased criminal liability for illegal use of force, could make recruitment and retention of good police officers more difficult.
Recruitment practices, training, and the culture of police departments were all discussed by the panel as having at least as much influence on the use of force by police officers as any law prescribing what can be considered “reasonable” or considered “necessary”. Both police chiefs, speaking as law enforcement leaders, emphasized how their roles are critical in terms of recruiting the right officers and creating the culture of the department. Both police chiefs highlighted the Crises Intervention Training (CIT) in their departments, and the need for more training and restraint when police officers are called to intervene in mental health emergencies.
Burris nonetheless stressed that of the 25 cases he currently has alleging illegal use of force by police, about a third involve clients with a mental disability. “More times than not, all the police officers had to do was wait,” Burris said. “People are dead who really should have been in a hospital.”
Public Defender Schwarzbach underlined that many situations police are called on to intervene, especially involving mental illness and drug addiction, need to be addressed in a larger context than simply trying to restrain police violence. “Let’s not lose sight of larger social failures, especially around public health issues like mental illness and drug addiction - that police are often called into- that need to be addressed in a larger way,” Schwarzbach said.
Chief Mills said he thought a key problem is the general expectation that police officers “need to be somehow ‘superhuman’, to make critical decisions within seconds that may save people’s lives, and be 100 percent right. No one person can be as superhuman as AB 931 expects them to be- and I fear it may be setting police officers up for failure,” Mills said.
The entire panel agreed on the usefulness of body-worn cameras to make the police use of force more transparent to the community as well as providing evidence of the rightness or wrongness of use of force. “Except for cases when the cameras seemed to get turned off at the opportune moment, which can be corrected with proper consequences,” noted Burris.
In closing both police chiefs emphasized the importance of trust, accountability and need for the community to support good law enforcement. Christey mentioned as part of a police chief’s association she met with the authors of AB 931 to discuss police perspectives of the bill. Burris joked that if all police chiefs were as progressive as Chief Mills and Chief Christey, he might be out of a job. Burris and Schwarzbach remained convinced that AB 931 would further the goals of “constitutional policing”, and that if change in the level of police violence is truly sought, then laws such as AB 931 necessarily have to be considered.