Fighting for Police Reform to Save Lives in California

As progressives, we must recognize that our country—whatever its promise of life, liberty, happiness, and equality under the law—has a long and deep-seated history of racism and racial inequity. It began with the genocide of indigenous populations and slavery, and continues today with Donald Trump: a white supremacist who gleefully attacks people of color through harmful federal policies and racist rhetoric. We must recognize these failings, but we should never accept them—and we must work to repair them.

One of our core organizational principles is that an attack on one is an attack on all. And we know that communities of color have been systematically under attack in our country since its inception. This year, there is a critical opportunity in California to fight racial injustice through a campaign to reform the police use of deadly force, a campaign that will literally save lives.

Call your California State Assemblymember

The California legislature is considering AB 392 (the California Act to Save Lives), which would change police use of force policies so that officers would have to de-escalate however possible before resorting to lethal force. Call your CA state assemblymember and demand that they support AB 392!

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Policing Disproportionately harms Communities of Color

We have a national crisis of police violence against people of color in this country. Black people are three times more likely to be killed by the police than white people. In 2015, 30% of black police shooting victims were unarmed, compared with 21% of white victims, and 99% of these cases have resulted in the officer’s acquittal. 35% of the unarmed people killed by police in 2017 were black, even though black people make up only 13% of the population.

Police Violence is a Problem in California

California is not immune to this crisis, and is in fact one of the states with the highest incidence of police violence.

In California specifically, officers shot and killed 172 people in 2017. Half of those shooting victims did not have a gun. Of the unarmed people killed by police, 3 out of 4 were people of color. 70% police shooting victims in California were people of color between 2006 and 2015. This means that blacks were killed by police officers at a rate five times that of whites and Latinos three times (adjusting for population).

Several California police departments have among the highest rates of killings in the nation, and these officers are almost never held accountable for their actions. Due to this unacceptably weak standard, fewer than 1% of officers nationally are prosecuted for killing someone in the line of duty. Last year, a video surfaced that showed the sheriff of Kern County declaring that it is better for police officers to kill someone rather than injure them. This is disgusting and confirms what we already know: the current system, due to poor training and a lack of accountability, encourages a “shoot first, think later” approach to policing.

The Campaign for Police Reform in California in 2019

Too many families have been shattered by police violence in California. Police should never take a human life when they have alternatives. While this seems like a common-sense standard, it isn’t the current practice in California.

In March of 2018, Sacramento Police chased and killed Stephon Clark, an unarmed black man holding only his cell phone, in his grandmother’s backyard. This horrendous event led to a wave of inspiring #BlackLivesMatter protests in the state’s capital that shed light onto the issue of police violence and the terrible state of our policing laws in California. Now a year later, Sacramento County District Attorney Anne Marie Schubert has announced that the police officers who killed Stephon Clark will not be charged. It’s time for this injustice to stop.

AB 392: The California Act to Save Lives

Under California law, officers are legally allowed to shoot and kill someone whenever it is “objectively reasonable.” This means that killing someone is legal, even if the killing wasn’t necessary to keep police officers or the public safe.

AB 392 (The California Act to Save Lives) would change the standard for the use of deadly force so that it can only be legally deployed when absolutely necessary to prevent an immediate threat of death or serious bodily injury. In other words, police officers can only use deadly force when there was no reasonable alternative, including warnings, verbal persuasion, or other non-lethal methods to resolve or de-escalate a situation.

Research shows that strong use of force policies actually do work to reduce police violence. Officers at agencies with stricter use of force policies kill fewer people, and law enforcement officers in those agencies are also less likely to be killed or seriously injured themselves. The California Department of Justice recently released a report recommending that the Sacramento Police Department “require that officers exhaust all reasonably available alternatives before using deadly force,” consistent with provisions in the California Act to Save Lives.

Stephon would be alive today if the officers had been trained to follow this policy. So would Mario Woods, Oscar Grant, Alex Nieto, Sahleem Tindle, Willie McCoy, and far too many others, mostly young men of color.

SB 230: Law Enforcement’s Attempt to Prevent Real Change

Law enforcement agencies do not want change or accountability. This year, they are actively trying to undermine AB 392 by introducing and lobbying for their own weak counter bill, SB 230.

SB 230 does not meaningfully address California’s epidemic of police shootings. Here is what SB 230 does:

  • Allows police to kill someone even when there is no threat and when there are alternatives to deadly force

  • Sets no requirements for a use of force policy beyond requiring that police departments have a policy that includes a list of topics

  • Does not require de-escalation at all

  • Loosely suggests a list of topics for law enforcement training but in no way mandates any training on anything

SB 230 is a toothless distraction bill, introduced to give legislators political cover to pretend like they are addressing an issue, while actually doing nothing. It’s been introduced by a handful of moderate Democrats who are friendly with law enforcement. Our best hope in creating real change in California is to stop SB 230 and pass AB 392.

How We Win

State of Play

This is the second year in a row that the California legislature is considering reforming the police use of deadly force law. After fierce law enforcement opposition, last year’s version of AB 392 was shelved in the final days of the legislative session, with a vow from the author to continue the fight this year.

The battle this year will be just as fierce. Despite having Democratic supermajorities in both chambers, passing legislation that the police oppose is extremely difficult due to a large caucus of police-friendly moderates. In addition, law enforcement will be laser-focused on defeating this bill, unlike last year when they were spread thin while fighting a package of four different police reform bills.

To win this fight and save lives in California, we must stop SB 230 and pass AB 392.

How We Stop SB 230

Our best chance of stopping SB 230 is in the Senate Public Safety Committee. The members of this committee have the power to hold the bill in committee and prevent it from advancing. This committee already passed AB 931 (the previous version of AB 392) last year so there is no reason for them to pass a less progressive bill like SB 230 this year.

The key decision makers that can help stop SB 230 are:

  • Nancy Skinner (SD 9, D) - Chair

  • John Moorlach (SD 37, R)

  • Steve Bradford (SD 35, D)

  • Hannah Beth Jackson (SD 19, D)

  • Holly Mitchell (SD 30, D)

  • Mike Morrell (SD 23, R)

  • Scott Wiener (SD 11, D)

How We Pass AB 392

It will be a long battle from now until September to pass AB 392. There are still several policy committees and floor votes between now and the Governor’s desk. AB 392 has to clear each of these hurdles:

  • Assembly Public Safety Committee

  • Assembly Appropriations

  • Assembly Floor

  • Senate Public Safety Committee

  • Senate Appropriations

  • Senate Floor

  • Governor’s Signature

But we can do it if we fight hard. Legislators will only find the courage to stand up to the police lobby if they know their constituents are watching and demanding better.

What You Can Do

We can save lives if we fight for change in California. Here is how you can get involved:

  • Call your Assemblymember and ask them to support AB 392.

  • Show up for public comment to support AB 392 for its committee hearing in April.

  • Show up for public comment to oppose SB 230 for its committee hearing in April.