California is one procedural hurdle away from adopting one of the strictest laws in the country regarding police use of force. After clearing the state senate 34-3 on Monday, Assembly Bill 392 heads to Gov. Gavin Newsom’s desk. Under the bill, the standard by which use of deadly force by police officers is justified will be elevated from when officers think it is “reasonable” to only when it is “necessary.” The bill was the reflection of a year’s worth of hard-fought compromise between civil rights organizations and police unions. Several police associations remain opposed.
In March 2018, Sacramento Police shot and killed Stephon Clark, believing him to be a suspected car burglar, and mistaking his cell phone for a gun. The District Attorney’s office decided not to charge the officers, citing their fear that Clark did have a gun. Thus, as a “reasonable fear” of danger existed, the police “acted lawfully,” and the shooting was justified. Clark’s death, and the legal response to it, prompted outrage, and his family marched to the Capitol a year later to demand change.
The new bill allows police to use deadly force only when “the officer reasonably believes, based on the totality of the circumstances, that deadly force is necessary to defend against an imminent threat of death or serious bodily injury.” Therefore, a police officer would have to be able to argue that there was an actual, imminent threat, not that he had a reasonable fear there might have been one. The bill also requires evaluating an officer’s conduct before and after deadly force is used, and determining whether deescalation techniques were attempted.
AB 392 had been vigorously opposed by law enforcement groups and police unions, and was amended significantly to appease them. An original version of the bill included an objective definition of what “necessary” meant, and would have held officers criminally liable for failing to meet that strict standard. Those provisions were removed, and police lobbyists dropped their opposition to the bill. Prosecutors and juries would instead be able to determine whether or not the standard was met. Still, several police associations throughout the state have held out and remain opposed to the bill.
If states are laboratories of democracy, AB 392, and chief sponsor, Assemblywoman Shirley Weber (D-San Diego), will give California the unique opportunity to serve as a test case in this contentious area of law enforcement. “Finally, folks are serious about it,” Weber said. “We were fighting some of the most difficult issues in the state. Who should do it better than California?” The ACLU is on board, so are hundreds of other organizations, and even legislative Republicans. Sen. John Moorlach (R-Costa Mesa) believes the bill will reduce “tragic and possibly preventable” deaths. Use of force incidents in California have dropped some 20% since 2016. It’s hoped that AB 392 will bring those numbers down even further.