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Police are furious California lawmakers are trying to limit their use of deadly force

Police in California are pushing back on a new bill that could be a game changer for how officers are treated under the law when they kill civilians.

by Tess Owen
Apr 5 2018, 9:41pm

Police in California are pushing back on a new bill that could be a game changer for how officers are treated under the law when they kill civilians.

If passed, the “Police Accountability and Community Protection Act” would significantly restrict when law enforcement can use deadly force. Current California law states that an officer needs to demonstrate that she or he had “reasonable fear” when they reached for their gun, a legal standard that notoriously favors law enforcement.

But after police in Sacramento shot and killed 22-year-old Stephon Clark, an unarmed black man, seven times in the back while he was standing in his grandmother’s backyard, legislators are looking to change the current standard. Several law enforcement unions in the state, however, are accusing politicians of grandstanding without consideration for officer safety, VICE News learned.

READ: Sacramento police can’t explain why officers muted their body cameras after shooting and killing unarmed black man

California lawmakers, joined by Clark’s grandfather, introduced the bill on Tuesday. The proposed measure dictates that deadly force should be used only when it’s “necessary to prevent imminent and serious bodily injury or death,” said Democratic Assemblywoman Shirley Weber from San Diego, who co-authored the bill. Although some local jurisdictions restrict lethal force, California would become the first state to do so, according to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).

“The new proposal demands that officers have a Monday Morning Quarterback’s perspective before game day on Sunday.”

As of Thursday afternoon, the full text of the bill hadn’t been posted, so details are still scant. The proposed standard, however, could force officers to delay confronting a suspect until backup arrives or explicitly tell a civilian that they’ll be shot if they don’t comply with orders, the Associated Press reported.

The Supreme Court first determined the “objectively reasonable fear” standard in 1989 and ruled that an officer’s use of deadly force should be considered within the wider context of how dangerous policing is. Police reform advocates say that the “reasonable fear” standard makes convicting officers when they kill civilians difficult, even in especially egregious cases. Just 80 officers were charged with manslaughter or murder between 2005 and April 2017, and only 35 percent of those were ultimately convicted, according to data analyzed by Phil Stinson, a criminologist at Bowling Green State University.

Under California’s proposed standard, contextual danger wouldn’t be relevant. For officers to justify their use of deadly force, they would have to demonstrate an immediate threat to their own or someone else’s life in that exact moment which couldn’t be resolved by other non- or less-lethal methods.

Dionne Smith-Downs joins others in a protest calling for the indictment of two Sacramento police officers who shot and killed Stephon Clark, Wednesday, April 4, 2018, in Sacramento, California. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli)

“We have a history of an overwhelming tendency, whenever there’s any ambiguity, of giving the officer the benefit of the doubt,” said Franklin Zimring, professor at UC Berkeley Law School and director of the criminal justice studies program. “But the much more specific ‘imminent threat of life or great bodily harm’ standard is a clear message of what the currency should be. You don’t kill people unless lives are at stake.”

READ: Police shoot far more people than anyone realized, a VICE News investigation reveals

Police, however, aren't on board with the new standard. At least five police unions in California said that the bill’s restrictions on use of force would only make it harder for law enforcement to do their jobs safely and effectively.

“This bill will put officers in further danger and is about political expediency and not sound public policy,” wrote the Los Angeles Police Protective League in a searing statement. “The new proposal demands that officers have a Monday Morning Quarterback’s perspective before game day on Sunday.”

“If enacted, it will either get cops killed or allow criminals to terrorize our streets unchecked,” the statement continued. “Pick one.”

The California Peace Officers Association echoed those concerns and said the bill “presents a fundamental and nearly impossible mandate on California law enforcement professionals' use of force.”

“To assume that an officer does not consider all other reasonable force options, including de-escalation and less-lethal options, before resorting to deadly force, is inaccurate,” Assistant Chief Marc Coopwood of Beverly Hills Police Department, who serves as president of the California Peace Officers Association, wrote in a statement.

His words were seconded by Tom Dominguez, president of the Association of Orange County Deputy Sheriffs.

"This legislation is a reaction to current events that have not been thoroughly investigated, it is not well thought out, and it puts California peace officers at risk," Dominguez wrote in a statement to VICE News. "We are hopeful that reasonable voices within the California democratic legislative caucus are able to bring sense to Weber and those who support this absurd proposal.”

Clark’s death kicked off days of protests, including one where a 61-year-old woman was hit with a Sacramento County Sheriff’s vehicle. Despite the public outcry, police unions speaking out in droves could hurt the bill’s chance for success.

“Obviously these police unions and lobbyists have a lot of power, and popular support, and that’s going to make the push for this bill a little more of an uphill battle,” said Lisa Holder, a professor at UCLA Law School who runs the school’s “Civil Rights & Police Accountability Clinic.”

Other law enforcement associations have also weighed in.

California Peace Officers Research Association called the bill “a dangerous rush to judgement” that “deceptively pretends that creating a checklist of what constitutes necessary force instead of reasonable force is something more than irresponsible legislation.”

“The end result is that the public will be placed at greater risk,” the organization wrote.

Sacramento Police Officers Association shared that statement on its Facebook page but didn’t respond to VICE News’ request for comment.

“It’s gonna tie our hands greatly in our ability to do our job,” David Kessler, president of the Kern Law Enforcement Association, another union in California, told VICE News. “The officers who make a split-second decision out there are putting their lives on the line on a regular basis.”

“We’re going to oppose anything that prevents us from doing our job,” Kessler continued. “Personally, I think you’re gonna see a lot more officers getting injured or killed in the line of duty.”

Law enforcement in California shot and killed 162 people in 2017, out of 987 people killed by cops nationwide last year, according to the Washington Post. So far in 2018, California police have killed 29 people, including Clark. And five of the nation’s top 15 police departments with the highest per-capita rates of police killings are in California, according to the ACLU.

For their part, civil rights groups are applauding the proposal to restrict the use of deadly force. “California legislators heard and responded to the community’s call for action by introducing landmark legislation to change state law governing the deadly use of force by police,” Peter Bibring, Police Practices Director with the ACLU of California, wrote in a statement.

Cover image: Assemblywoman Shirley Weber, Democrat of San Diego, discusses a proposed to significantly restrict when police officers can fire their weapons, during a news conference Tuesday, April 3, 2018, in Sacramento, California. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli)