Bill Would Change When California Cops Can Use Deadly Force

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Assemblywoman Shirley Weber talks to a packed room at the State Capitol on April 3 about a bill she introduced that would change the legal standard for police use of force in California. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Several lawmakers and the family of Stephon Clark, a 22-year-old unarmed black man who was fatally shot by Sacramento police, proposed on Tuesday that California become the first state to significantly restrict when officers can open fire.

A proposed state law would change the current "objective reasonableness" standard stemming from the U.S. Supreme Court's interpretation of the Fourth Amendment. Assembly Bill 931 would instead "authorize deadly force only when it is necessary to prevent imminent death or serious bodily injury," according to a summary of the legislation. The bill's text had not been officially filed as of Tuesday afternoon.

Officers would be allowed to shoot only if "there were no other reasonable alternatives to the use of deadly force" to prevent imminent serious injury or death, said Lizzie Buchen, legislative advocate for the American Civil Liberties Union, which is among the groups behind the measure.

"We need to ensure that our state policy governing the use of deadly force stresses the sanctity of human life and is only used when necessary," said Assemblywoman Shirley Weber, a San Diego Democrat who introduced the bill. "Deadly force can be used, but only when it is completely necessary."

The bill aims to change the language of two California Penal Code sections, Buchen said, both of which originated in 1872. California Penal Code Section 196 defines "justifiable homicide" by public officers, and Section 835a gives police officers authority to use "reasonable force to effect the arrest, to prevent escape or to overcome resistance."

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The new bill's goal is to encourage officers to try to defuse confrontations or use less deadly weapons, said Democratic Assemblyman Kevin McCarty of Sacramento, who is co-authoring the legislation.

"Young black men are 20 times more likely to be killed at the hands of a law enforcement officer than young Caucasian men," McCarty said. "The time is now to revise this over 100-year-old law, which unfortunately too often justifies deadly force incidents."

Spokesmen for the California Police Chiefs Association and California State Sheriffs' Association said they had not seen the proposal and could not comment.

"We should no longer be the target practice or victims of a shoot first, ask questions later police force," said Assemblyman Chris Holden, chairman of the Legislative Black Caucus.

Proponents said the bill would require all California police departments to adopt use-of-force policies similar to a new set of rules in San Francisco, which emphasize de-escalation and alternatives to deadly force when feasible.

But some in law enforcement called the proposal irresponsible and unworkable.

Officers already use deadly force only when necessary and are taught to try to defuse dangerous situations first when possible, said Ed Obayashi, a Plumas County sheriff's deputy and special prosecutor who trains officers and testifies in court on police use of force.

Tinkering with legal protections for police could make it more difficult to hire officers and be dangerous because they may hesitate when confronting an armed suspect, threatening themselves and bystanders, Obayashi said.

This March 18 photo shows Stephon Clark the afternoon before he died in his grandmother's backyard in Sacramento.
This March 18 photo shows Stephon Clark the afternoon before he died in his grandmother's backyard in Sacramento.

Weber, who heads a public safety oversight committee, said she hopes the recent heavily publicized string of police shootings of minority suspects and mass protests over last month's death of Stephon Clark will be enough to overcome any law enforcement resistance.

Two Sacramento officers chased Clark, who was suspected of breaking into cars, into his grandparents' darkened backyard and opened fire within seconds and without identifying themselves as police because they said they thought he had a gun. Investigators found only a cellphone.

Changing the legal standard might mean that more people confronted by police "could go home. They may be able to wake up" the next day, said Clark's uncle, family spokesman Curtis Gordon.

"A life may be saved in that blink" of time before officers open fire, he said. "If you feel some sort of repercussion, you may act a little more cautiously."

Several black community leaders at the news conference called the proposal "a good first step."

Sacramento Police Chief Daniel Hahn told The Associated Press last week that he is open to examining the department's policies on pursuing suspects and other practices, but warned that changes could carry consequences.

Sacramento police chief Daniel Hahn prays after Stevante Clark, brother of Stephon Clark, disrupted a special city council meeting at Sacramento City Hall on March 27, 2018.
Sacramento Police Chief Daniel Hahn prays after Stevante Clark, brother of Stephon Clark, disrupted a special City Council meeting at Sacramento City Hall on March 27, 2018. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

California's current standard makes it rare for officers to be charged after a shooting and rarer still for them to be convicted. Frequently it's because of the doctrine of "objective reasonableness." If prosecutors or jurors believe that officers have a reason to fear for their safety, they can use deadly force.

The tougher proposed standard could require officers to delay confronting a suspect they fear may be armed until backup arrives or force police to give explicit verbal warnings that suspects will be killed unless they drop the weapon, said Buchen of the ACLU.

"It’s clear that the current law protects the police, not the people," Buchen said. "It allows officers to kill community members when they had other options or when they’re the ones who created the danger."

The proposal would open officers who don't follow the stricter rules to discipline or firing, and sometimes even criminal charges.

The ACLU says California would be the first state to adopt such a standard, though some other law enforcement agencies, including San Francisco, have similar or more restrictive rules.

Cities' strict standards are generally for situations where there is time to de-escalate volatile situations, such as with people who are mentally unstable, Obayashi said.

The lawmakers and ACLU point to a 2016 study by policy analyst and racial justice advocate Samuel Sinyangwe that analyzed use-of-force policies by major U.S. police departments. He found that officers working under more restrictive policies are less likely to kill and less likely to be killed or assaulted.

Officers fatally shot 162 people in California last year, only half of whom had guns, the lawmakers said.

They cited studies showing that black people are far more likely than white people to die in police shootings and that California has five of the nation's 15 police departments with the highest per capita rates of killings by officers: Bakersfield, Stockton, Long Beach, Santa Ana and San Bernardino.

This post contains reporting from the Associated Press.

Alex Emslie of KQED News contributed to this report.

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