David Griffith, editor of POLICE/PoliceMag.com
 - Photo: Kelly Bracken

David Griffith, editor of POLICE/PoliceMag.com

Photo: Kelly Bracken

Stephon Clark was a troubled young man. And on the night of March 18, 2018, he was killed by two Sacramento police officers. The officers had been summoned to the scene by a report of someone burglarizing vehicles. When they arrived Clark led them on a foot pursuit into darkened backyards where the officers mistook his cellphone for a gun and opened fire.

The Clark shooting enraged California's anti-police activists and their followers. They protested, blocked streets, impeded fan access to the Sacramento Kings' arena on game nights, and they pushed for new legislation that would make it harder for police to justify deadly force.

That legislation, Assembly Bill 931, authored by Assembly Members Shirley Weber and Kevin McCarty, was introduced more than a year before the Clark incident. But it gained momentum after the shooting and sparked controversy as the media started discussing that it would change the standard for justifying police deadly force from objectively reasonable to necessary.

And here begins the story of how some of California's most liberal politicians and the state's police organizations reached a compromise on two bills, one that provides more police training and the other that codifies the U.S. Supreme Court's rulings on when police can use force into state law.

As originally drafted, AB 931 (reintroduced this year as AB 392) was very concerning for California law enforcement officers and the organizations that represent them. Of particular concern was the possibility that the "necessary" terminology in the legislation would open officers up to judgment of split-second decisions by people with 20-20 hindsight. And that is exactly what the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Graham v. Connor was designed to prevent.

Many officers in California also worried that the new legislation if voted into law would lead to officers endangering themselves and the public by hesitating to act. "… if you start making cops second-guess things, it's going to be a public safety nightmare," James Wheeler, vice president of the Association for Los Angeles Deputy Sheriffs, told the Los Angeles Times.

Facing the possibility of what they viewed as a very problematic police use-of-force bill passing California's legislature and being signed into law, law enforcement organizations began to push their own bill.

California Senate Bill 230 was designed to codify Graham v. Connor's objectively reasonable standard for law enforcement use of force. It also provided for additional training standards on use of force and de-escalation for California officers.

The use-of-force elements in the Senate bill didn't survive legislative committee. And that left the Assembly bill, the one with all the language that could have contradicted the objectively reasonable standard, as the only option for a legislature that wanted to rewrite California's use-of-force law, which was so out of date that it did not adhere to Tennessee v. Garner.

Police organizations were not happy. They started making even more noise about their opposition to AB 392.

Then a truly remarkable thing happened. The law enforcement representatives and the author of the controversial use-of-force bill started to talk. And they came to an agreement. The author of AB 392 accepted language that adhered closer to Graham v. Connor and the police groups would no longer fight the bill.

Last month the Los Angeles Police Protective League (LAPPL) sent a message to its members stating that it and other police unions and associations in the state had withdrawn their opposition to AB 392. The LAPPL told its members that it had changed its stand on the legislation because it does not change the use-of-force standard from objectively reasonable to necessary.

Author of AB 931 and AB 392 Assembly Member Shirley Weber of San Diego says compromise with law enforcement was her goal from the beginning. "I kept saying this bill will make it safe behind and in front of the badge," she told the Los Angeles Times.

While Weber is satisfied with the new language in the bill, which was overwhelmingly approved by the Assembly late last month, some of the anti-police activists who supported her initial legislation are not happy.

And some law enforcement organizations that withdrew their opposition to the bill are also not ecstatic about it. But that is the nature of compromise.

AB 392 is expected to be approved by the state Senate and signed by the governor in the next month. SB 230, which requires more de-escalation training for officers and provides funding for that training, has passed the Senate. It is expected to be approved by the Assembly and signed into law by the governor this summer.

David Griffith is the editor of POLICE/PoliceMag.com.

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