After changes, will California bill restricting cops’ use of deadly force make a difference?

When the Sacramento County district attorney announced she wouldn’t prosecute police officers who shot Stephon Clark in his grandparents’ backyard, Gov. Gavin Newsom said “this must be a time for change.”

Protesters took to the streets over what they saw as another instance of police not facing charges for shooting an unarmed black man. They sought change in a bill at the Capitol that would raise the legal standard for when California police can use deadly force from “reasonable” to “necessary,” which supporters said would force cops to think twice before firing their guns.

But recent adjustments to the bill to appease law enforcement may have weakened the legislation to the point where it doesn’t make much change at all, some political observers say.

Ed Obayashi, deputy sheriff and legal adviser for Plumas County Sheriff’s Office, said changes eliminated what little effect the previous version of the bill would have had.

“This bill could never accomplish what it was attempting to do, in other words prevent deaths in a split-second decision,” he said. “If the constituencies of the proponents of this bill believe or have the impression that this is going to shift the needle or prevent a Stephon Clark, they’ll be disappointed.”

The proposal, Assembly Bill 392, is on a path to become law after the compromises that were announced Thursday. Its author, Assemblywoman Shirley Weber, D-San-Diego, announced them in a press release that included support from Newsom as well as Senate President pro tem Toni Atkins and Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon.

Weber, who has worked for years to change the standard, said she still believes her bill will reduce police shootings after the amendments. The bill still raises the standard for when officers can kill, she said, and directs officers to use options other than deadly force when they deem it safe.

“With so many unnecessary deaths, I think everyone agrees that we need to change how deadly force is used in California,” the San Diego Democrat said Thursday. “We can now move a policy forward that will save lives and change the culture of policing in California.”

The changes softened language to give officers more leeway to determine when deadly force is necessary. The bill adds clauses letting officers use deadly force if they “reasonably” believe a suspect poses a lethal or serious threat.

The changes eliminate a section that would have listed ways officers must try to defuse the situation if they deem it is safe to do so, replacing it with a line saying officers “shall use other available resources and techniques if reasonably safe and feasible.”

“It is the intent of the Legislature that peace officers use deadly force only when necessary in defense of human life,” the new language says.

Robert Weisberg, a Stanford University professor who is an expert on use-of-force law, said the bill wouldn’t significantly change the legal standard.

“Reasonably believe it to be necessary is really the law as it is now,” he said. “If they stick the word reasonably back in there, they may have undermined the intent.”

The bill would now allow officers to use deadly force on a fleeing suspect “if the officer reasonably believes that the person will cause death or serious bodily injury to another unless immediately apprehended.”

Weisberg said that’s perhaps the most significant change the bill makes by bringing California law in line with the federal standard for shooting fleeing suspects.

Tanya Faison, who founded the Sacramento chapter of Black Lives Matter, led protests against District Attorney Anne Marie Schubert for not charging officers who killed 22-year-old Clark last year. Schubert said the officers feared for their lives and “acted lawfully under the circumstances.”

Black Lives Matter has never backed AB 392 because it lacks penalties for district attorneys like Schubert who don’t charge police officers who kill or harm people, Faison said.

The changes to the bill further weaken it, Faison said, a sign of the influence of police groups in lawmaking decisions.

“Anytime the police agree with something that has to do with holding them accountable… it makes my eyebrows raise,” she said.

Police groups announced Thursday that they will support the proposal after years of fighting attempts to change the law.

“We urge all of our state’s elected leaders and every Californian to support this sweeping use of force reform and lead the way forward for the rest of the country,” Rick LaBeske, president of the California Association of Highway Patrolmen, said in a statement.

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Sophia Bollag covers California politics and government. Before joining The Bee, she reported in Sacramento for the Associated Press and the Los Angeles Times. She grew up in California and is a graduate of Northwestern University.
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