Late last week, it was reported that Assembly Bill 931 — a piece of legislation aimed at reducing the number of officer-involved shootings in California by modifying that state's legal standard for judging police officers' use of force from "reasonable" to "necessary" — was referred by the full Senate back to the Senate Rules Committee, temporarily halting its progress toward passage.
Upon hearing this news, police organizations across California expressed cautious optimism that the bill would not pass a full Senate vote in its current form.
The California Police Chiefs Association said in a written statement that the bill "still needs work in order to gain enough support to pass the full Senate."
The California Police Officers Association — which has more than 16,000 members of all ranks from municipal, county, state, and federal law enforcement agencies throughout the state — said in an email to its members that the bill is "just bad legislation," adding that "legislative efforts like AB 931 put officers in harm's way."
Time will tell what ultimately happens with AB 931 — but the news of this legislation suddenly and unexpectedly being derailed provides an opportunity to review the reasons to reject this controversial proposal.
AB 931 — otherwise known as the Police Accountability and Community Protection Act — is fatally flawed in its current form. Unpacking all of the problems in this piece of legislation is a monumentally difficult task, but I'll give it a shot — no pun intended.
The bill would directly conflict with existing case law — specifically, that which is established in Graham v. Connor — regarding the standard by which police use-of-force cases would be evaluated in the courts. More on Graham in a bit, but the Court's 1989 decision is the most important problem with AB 931.
The bill — which was authored by Shirley Weber (D-San Diego) and Kevin McCarty (D-Sacramento) — was hastily written, largely in response to the officer-involved shooting of Stephon Clark in Sacramento in March. The word "reactionary" applies here.
The bill is a poorly written document that could — and probably would — create a litigious landslide of civil and criminal actions against police officers involved in violent confrontations with confrontational subjects. Cities across the state could go bankrupt just settling cases out of court.
The bill — which would embolden anti-police press and politicians in second-guessing police officers — will almost certainly worsen the problem of deadly hesitation, putting officers and civilians at greater risk of being hurt or killed by dangerous criminals.
Cops will disengage.
Crime will rise.
End of story.
I could go on, but you get the idea.
This bill is a bad idea.
All of the above doesn't mean that there isn't an opportunity to pass legislation that achieves the well-intentioned outcomes of mitigating volatile situations, and minimizing the number of police use of force cases in the Golden State.
The legislature could pass legislation that mandates — and funds — an increase in the number of officers patrolling the streets. When police show up to a call in twos, threes, and fours, things tend to de-escalate. Not always — but there is strength in numbers, and we need more cops for that.
The legislature could pass legislation that mandates — and funds — more training for officers in areas such as verbal and non-verbal communication, less-lethal tactics and tools, and open-hand techniques that achieve compliance from resistive subjects. More training for police officers is always a good thing.
The legislature could pass legislation that mandates — and funds — mandatory "Civics Class" for every eighth-grade student in the state. Kids would learn about Graham v. Connor, which states that "the 'reasonableness' of a particular use of force must be judged from the perspective of a reasonable officer on the scene, rather than with the 20/20 vision of hindsight." Kids might even learn about concepts like "comply and complain" — which is a very good strategy for going to bed at night with the same number of holes in their body as when they got out of bed in the morning.
But the California legislature will not propose — nor will they pass — any of those things.
And we all know why.
The people who support Assembly Bill 931 freely and frequently use the term "de-escalation."
They talk about the use of "time and distance" to prevent confrontations from going loud.
They talk about the need to determine what force is "necessary" in a volatile situation.
Three obvious questions immediately arise:
What is the definition of de-escalation? If there's an active shooter running amok in a school or office building, fatally shooting the gunman would de-escalate the situation, would it not? De-escalation is not a tactic — it is an outcome. It is the result of the appropriate application of time-tested tactics.
How much "time and distance" is enough? Every situation — like the snowflakes who support wrongheaded bills like AB 931 — is unique. How much time and distance do cops have in a living room with a sweaty naked guy — high on some unknown substance — swinging a steel fireplace stoker around?
Who decides what's "necessary" in a given situation? Is it the officer involved in a rapidly unfolding, high-stress encounter at oh-dark-thirty on a Sunday morning? Or the civilian — who has no police training or knowledge of the law — viewing the viral video of the incident at 0930 on Monday morning?
Suffice it to say that there is far more complexity to the issues that AB 931 is trying to resolve than the bill actually addresses. In fact, AB 931 — in its current form — adds unnecessary complexity to police use-of-force incidents.
The Graham decision was unanimous.
There were no dissenting comments from the Court on that day.
That fact alone is supremely telling.
Graham is the law of the land.
We don't need lawmakers from the People's Republic of California writing legislation that deviates from what has long been established as the standard by which police officers are judged following a use-of-force incident.