The state Senate Appropriations Committee, chaired by state Sen. Anthony Portantino (D-Glendale), opened hearings on Monday regarding Assembly Bill 931, a controversial piece of legislation which could redefine when police officers can use deadly force.
The measure has met with resistance from law enforcement groups.
“We find ourselves dumbfounded that legislation of this magnitude was introduced without consulting law enforcement stakeholders,” the Sacramento Bee reported California Police Chiefs Association President David Swing saying in early April, shortly after the bill was introduced.
Swing, according to the Bee, said communities woiuld be put at risk by causing police to second-guess their actions.
Swing said police, who learned of the legislation through media reports, would be open to collaborating with supporters of the bill. However, the newspaper reported Swing said it was “premature to discuss what changes to the lethal force standard police chiefs might be willing to consider talking to supporters of the bill.”
Meanwhile, other recently introduced legislation, Senate Bill 1421, could force police departments to release the records of officers, including complaints regarding their actions and investigations into their behavior. The bill would force departments to release records of officer-involved shootings; incidents involving electronic devices like Tasers; strikes to the head and neck by impact weapons; fatal use-of-force incidents and encounters which resulted to serious bodily harm; and sexual assault incidents, including those in which force or threats were used in attempts to initiate sexual contact.
Departments would also be forced to release to the public any records indicating officers were caught lying in relation to reporting and investigating crimes.
That bill has already passed in the senate’s Public Safety Committee.
“Building trust between police and communities has to start with transparency,” said bill author state Sen. Nancy Skinner (D-Berkeley). “SB1421 ensures that when officers use serious or deadly force, engage in sexual assault or are dishonest in carrying out their duties, the public is informed.”
California’s existing confidentiality rules about police conduct and misconduct, which SB1421 would modify, are among some of the most stringent in the country, according to Skinner. Under existing law, the public and hiring agencies do not have access to substantiated reports of officer misconduct.
Skinner said the restrictions erode public trust and can allow officers with repeated incidents of serious misconduct to bounce from agency to agency undetected.
“California is an outlier when it comes to providing public access to law enforcement records,” said Skinner in a prepared statement. “SB1421 is a sunshine ordinance that will help build trust and accountability.”
According to the bill, during an active investigation of an incident involving one or more officers, disclosure by police may be delayed for up to 60 days from the date the use of force occurred or until the district attorney determines whether to file criminal charges related to the use of force, whichever occurs sooner.
If an agency delays disclosure pursuant to this clause, the agency would have to provide a reason for the delay and an estimated date for the disclosure of that information.
“The public has a right to know all about serious police misconduct, as well as about officer-involved shootings and other serious uses of force,” the bill reads. “Concealing crucial public safety matters such as officer violations of civilians’ rights, or inquiries into deadly use-of-force incidents undercuts the public’s faith in the legitimacy of law enforcement, makes it harder for tens of thousands of hardworking peace officers to do their jobs, and endangers public safety.”
The California Supreme Court has previously ruled that some information from confidential police personnel records can only be released by a judge with the filing of a Pitchess Motion — named for former Los Angeles County Sheriff Peter J. Pitchess.
SB1421 is co-authored by assembly members Reggie Jones-Sawyer (D-South Los Angeles), Kevin McCarty (D-Sacramento), Mark Stone (D-Santa Clara) and Shirley Weber (D-San Diego).
Weber and McCarty co-authored AB931, the “Police Accountability and Community Protection Act,” which could have a major impact on use of force incidents.
The bill would permit officers to use deadly force only to prevent imminent bodily harm or death, and when there are no reasonable alternatives to de-escalate the situation through verbal warnings, persuasion, or other non-lethal efforts.
According to text in the bill, if the bill passes officers would be forced “to attempt to control an incident by using time, distance, communications, and available resources in an effort to deescalate a situation whenever it is safe and reasonable to do so.”
Under the bill, prosecutors would also be able to look at an officer’s actions leading up to a deadly use of force, and whether those actions were “grossly negligent” and put the officer in danger unnecessarily.
“We know there’s pressure on Portantino from law enforcement groups to either sit on the bill or water it down,” said LA Progressive Editor Dick Price.
Price’s wife, Sharon Kyle, publisher of the website and a member of the ACLU national board, participated in a forum Monday called “Legislating for Our Lives” at Glendale City Church.
“Part of what we’re doing here is creating an avenue for advocacy to support Portantino to take more progressive stands, even though at least a part of his district is fairly conservative,” said Price.
AB931 was introduced by Assembly members Weber and McCarty, with Assemblyman Chris Holden, D-Pasadena, who is also the chairman of the Legislative Black Caucus, as a principal co-author.
“We should no longer be the target practice or victims of a shoot first, ask questions later police force,” Holden said soon after the bill was introduced.
Law enforcement agencies have criticized the bill, claiming it would place officers’ lives in danger.
According to Shaun Riddle, deputy director of the California Peace Officers Association, hundreds of supporters, including family and friends of people killed by police, showed up at the senate’s Public Safety Committee where AB931 was passed by a vote of 5-2 earlier this year.
“The profession was accused of being racist and looking for an opportunity to shoot and kill whenever possible,” said Riddle on the CPOA’s website. “Due to the overwhelming support by pro-AB931 activists and legislators in the room, those comments were not allowed to be challenged.”
Under the recommended changes, at least one high-profile Pasadena case could have resulted in charges against a Pasadena police officer. In 2012, Officer Jeffrey Newlen violated policy by leaving a police cruiser to pursue unarmed teen Kendrec McDade without communicating with his partner Matthew Griffin. The pair believed McDade was armed due to a call by a man who believed his briefcase was stolen from his car.
After McDade reportedly turned and ran toward the car, Griffin opened fire, followed by Newlen who believed that it was McDade shooting. An independent probe later ruled the officers violated policy several times during the shooting.
The city settled the case for just more than $1 million.
Under the bill, prosecutors could have claimed gross negligence in the incident due to Newlen’s policy violation.