Freddie Gray. Michael Brown. Philando Castile. Oscar Grant. Stephon Clark. The names alone tell a story. Depending on who you are, they tell a story about grief and injustice, or they tell a story about the hazards of a dangerous job.
They were all black men who were shot dead by police. March 18 will mark the one-year anniversary of the day Clark, then 22, was killed in his grandparents’ Sacramento backyard. He was holding a cell phone, which police said they believed to be a gun.
It was in the wake of Clark’s death that police conduct and accountability finally made their way to the forefront of the legislative agenda in Sacramento. State Sen. Nancy Skinner, D-Berkeley, authored SB 1421, which makes investigative findings about police misconduct part of the public record. But as Senior Staff Writer Mary Duan details in this week’s cover story (p. 20), police agencies are looking for every possible loophole they can find to dodge compliance with the law.
It’s ironic, because revealing records that document an agency’s discipline against bad cops – something Salinas has done, hopefully leading the way – helps protect good cops. It’s only through accountability that public trust in law enforcement can begin to be restored.
While SB 1421 made it to the governor’s desk last year and became law, effective Jan. 1, 2019, another policing bill, introduced by Assemblymember Shirley Weber, D-San Diego, didn’t end that way. Weber’s bill would redefine when use of force is allowed. It was so controversial last year that Democratic leaders urged her to table the bill and spend time bringing police to the table.
For months, Weber’s staff met with representatives of ACLU of California and Peace Officers Research Association of California (PORAC). When it became clear they weren’t going to see eye to eye, each introduced their own version on Feb. 6.
Weber introduced AB 392 with support from the ACLU, Black Lives Matter and others. It makes clear that police may still stand their ground and use force, but would not protect police if their own conduct creates a dangerous situation that then requires them to use force.
PORAC took their version to state Sen. Anna Caballero, D-Salinas, who introduced SB 230. It calls for training on deescalation and for each police agency to establish a use-of-force policy, but does not specify what’s required in those policies.
Caballero’s bill reads like a watered-down version of Weber’s bill – but one written by police officers in order to be palatable to police officers. No doubt the two bills will be negotiated, and perhaps a compromise version will emerge.
“I am concerned this is their starting point,” says Lizzie Buchen, legislative advocate for ACLU says of SB 230.
Brian Marvel, a San Diego police officer and president of PORAC, says AB 392 isn’t practical. “You could ‘what if’ a use-of-force scenario to death,” he says. “People are making decisions in a very tense situation. We don’t want to judge officers’ actions based on 20-20 hindsight.”
But that is exactly what some activists want it to do.
Israel Villa, policy coordinator for MILPA, also has a list of names on his mind: Osmar Hernandez. Frank Alvarado, Jr. Carlos Mejia. Angel Ruiz. They’re four Latino men who were killed by Salinas police in 2014, in Caballero’s district.
“Caballero’s bill is a slap in the face to the families who have lost people to police brutality,” Villa says. (For her 2018 campaign, Caballero received $1,500 each from PORAC, Assocation for LA County Sheriffs PAC and LA Protective League PAC.)
Caballero maintains her bill would reduce the frequency with which police use force by offering training, and that her bill would make police safer, too. “The goal is not to go back and revisit use-of-force incidents in the past,” Caballero says. “It’s a moving-forward bill. The purpose is to reduce the number of use-of-force incidents. I believe very firmly you do that through training.”
More (and mandated) training for police is a great idea. So is publicly releasing records that show police agencies have held bad actors accountable. But police have shown they only want to move the ball forward if it’s on their own terms – something that isn’t helping earn the public’s buy-in.