California could limit when officers shoot to kill

California Attorney General Xavier Becerra says he won’t charge two Sacramento police officers in the killing of 22-year-old Stephon Clark, saying the officers believed they were in danger when they opened fire. (March 5)
APSAN FRANCISCO — A showdown over when police in this state can use deadly force is set to unfold in the California Legislature next week, one that could bring sweeping changes to local law enforcement departments that give officers broad latitude in deciding when to shoot to kill.At issue is Assembly Bill 392, known as the California Act to Save Lives, which would put the onus on officers to justify discharging their weapon, shifting the standard from “reasonable” — as defined by the Supreme Court’s 1989 Graham v Connor ruling — to “necessary.” That means that, under the proposed bill, police must feel confident that it is truly necessary to shoot to protect themselves or others from danger, or they could be prosecuted for killing their victim. Instead of reaching for their guns, officers would be pressed to engage in de-escalation tactics — in addition to considering options such as a Taser or a baton — that aim to reduce tension between officer and suspect. Experts say these include listening to the suspect’s story, explaining the actions an officer is about to take, and ensuring that the suspect’s dignity is preserved throughout the interaction.The change to the rules of engagement have the potential to reverse an alarming trend. California has the highest percentage of police shootings per 100,000 people among states with more than 8 million residents, says Seth Stoughton, a former police officer and now law professor at the University of South Carolina who is an expert on deadly force rules.”The states are all over the map in the way they regulate deadly force, with some being very permissive, and that’s where California is right now,” says Stoughton, noting that the Western state shares that reputation with Georgia, Texas and Florida. Among large states, New York has the fewest officer-related shooting deaths.”This new bill would make the preservation of life law enforcement’s top priority in California,” says Stoughton, who wrote letters to California lawmakers in support of the bill. “Having the state Legislature tell police officers, ‘This is the job we expect you to do’ is an important piece of symbolism.”AB 392’s co-sponsor, Assemblymember Shirley Weber (D-San Diego), says the law would encourage police to consider non-lethal methods when bringing suspects into custody.”The piling on of killings of often unarmed civilians by police for the past six or seven years now is wearing on the conscience of this nation,” she says. “The thought after these shootings often is, ‘Isn’t there something else police could have done?’ And maybe sometimes there are other things.”Assemblywoman Shirley Weber, D-San Diego, discusses her bill that would allow police to use deadly force only when there is no reasonable alternative, during a news conference, Wednesday, Feb. 6, 2019, in Sacramento, California. (Photo: Rich Pedroncelli/AP)But critics say 392 ignores the nuanced difficulties inherent in police work and will have a calamitous effect on everything from policing practices to recruiting.“This bill is an affront against anyone who wears a badge, and if people understood its consequences nobody would vote for it,” says Assemblyman Tom Lackey (R-Palmdale), who served on the California Highway Patrol for 28 years. “Unless you’ve been in this arena, you don’t understand how fast things unfold.”Read more: On National Police Week, officers ‘feel more scrutinized than ever’Lackey says officers take their power to kill extremely seriously, recounting a CHP colleague who became so distraught after one fatal shooting that he became an alcoholic and later committed suicide.Lackey says a problem does exist with current policing protocols, which have resulted in the high-profile shooting deaths of civilians such as Stephon Clark, a Sacramento man who was killed by police officers in March 2018 while carrying only a cell phone.“But this bill isn’t the solution to that problem,” he says, adding that adopting a new policy could lead to tragic results for officers. “You change the policy midstream and you’ll cause officers to think before reacting and that time gap is going to be deadly.”AutoplayShow ThumbnailsShow CaptionsLast SlideNext SlideAB 392 pits victims’ relatives and the American Civil Liberties Union against a massive statewide force — state and local officers serving 40 million people across 600 agencies with 120,000 personnel — that until recently was protected by one of the toughest police privacy laws in the country.On January 1, Senate Bill 1421 became law, allowing the public to seek access to police records and internal investigation files to get more information about incidents in which police either use lethal force or are suspected of criminal activity.Theresa Smith is among many victims’ rights advocates that has spent time in Sacramento sharing her story in support of both 1421 and 392. Her son, Caesar Ray Cruz, was killed in 2009 in Southern California after a tipster told police he was a gang member and armed.After being confronted by police in a Walmart parking lot, Cruz was fatally shot. Officers said they thought Cruz was reaching into his waistband, but he was not armed.The deadly force “bill is important simply because if it had been in effect when my son was shot, there might be some accountability for their actions,” says Smith, who started a non-profit called LEAN to help relatives of those killed by police deal with grief and seek answers.Read more: Okla. residents demand answers in police shooting“This bill is about saving lives,” she says. “That includes police lives, and it includes the lives of bystanders. My son was shot in a Walmart parking lot at Christmas.”Smith says she understands that police work is difficult and dangerous, and, “if you’re in imminent danger for your life, you have to make that decision. But if someone’s running from you, or has their back to you, or is having a mental breakdown, that’s something else.”Theresa Smith, right, the mother of Caesar Cruz, who was killed in a confrontation with police, wipes her eyes after testifying against a police-backed law enforcement training bill by state Sen. Anna Caballero, D-Salinas, during an April 23 hearing in Sacramento. (Photo: Rich Pedroncelli, AP)Advocates for stricter parameters on police use of force say that evidence abounds of instances in which violent armed shooters are taken into custody without incident.Some also argue that there often is a racial component at play. “Time and time again, officers manage to safely arrest people who are armed and dangerous, though often those people are white,” says Lizzie Buchen, legislative advocate for the ACLU of California.Read more: More cops. Is it the answer to fighting crime?“We know police have the tools and skills to apprehend people without harming them,” says Buchen. “But there are just dramatic discrepancies of outcomes when you’re dealing with people of color.”Buchen says the bill is not aimed at neutering police, but rather is suggesting a best-practices solution that should result in a lower use of force, fewer deadly incidents and a rebounding of trust between police officers and the communities they serve.A previous bill, Senate Bill 230, was put forth by law enforcement as an option to 392 and focused largely on increasing training but not changing the standard for the use of force. That bill was shot down by the Senate legislative committee last month because it didn’t go far enough in changing the current rules of engagement. Still, lawmakers and advocates on both sides of the use of force issue remain tentatively optimistic that conversations next week about the details of 392 will result in a bill that police officers and victims’ rights groups can support.“We’re looking to pass what would be the strongest use of force bill in the nation, one that defines it as being useable only when necessary, not when reasonable,” says bill sponsor Weber. “We’re in conversations with law enforcement, and we hope that will net some positive results.”But Robert Harris, president of Protect California, a coalition of law enforcement associations and trade unions, says that changing the terms on use of force “is a line in the sand we don’t want to cross.”Salena Manni, the fiancee of Stephon Clark, wipes tears from her eyes during a news conference. Sacramento prosecutors determined that no charges would be filed against officers for the shooting death of Clark, a 22-year-old black man who was killed by police in his grandmother’s back yard. (Photo: Rich Pedroncelli/AP)The problem with requiring officers to, in the moment, determine “if force is necessary is that it creates a standard officers will never reach, and allows for 20/20 hindsight,” he says. “I don’t think 392 will reduce incidents, and I fear that officers, out of fear of being second guessed, won’t be as proactive as they can be about their policing.”For Smith, however, who lost her son to a deadly encounter with police, setting a new standard for when police should discharge their firearms is critical to rebuilding a rapport with law enforcement that is rapidly eroding.“Right now, if you’re an officer, you can kill someone and have there be no consequences,” she says. “A badge shouldn’t be equal to a license to kill. We just want law enforcement, with all their training, to be held accountable. Because no one should be above the law.”Follow USA TODAY national correspondent @marcodellacavaRead or Share this story:

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