Assembly passes stricter use-of-force bill, suggesting police unions have lost clout at state Capitol

Law enforcement organizations’ bitter opposition hasn’t derailed two major reform measures before the California Legislature.

For the second year in a row, a sweeping police reform measure that law-enforcement organizations said was motivated by antipathy toward peace officers has been embraced by the state Legislature.

Last year lawmakers passed Senate Bill 1421 by Sen. Nancy Skinner, D-Berkeley. It required police agencies to release information on officer discipline records – treating these records the same as many others that are routinely released to the public under government openness laws. California’s police disclosure rules previously had been among the strictest in the nation.

This year, Assembly Bill 392, by Assemblywoman Shirley Weber, D-San Diego, appears headed for passage after being approved 67-0 by the Assembly on Wednesday. It says officers may only use lethal force if it is “necessary” for public safety. Existing law says officers can use such force if they believe it is “reasonable” to ensure public safety. While provisions in Assembly Bill 392 were dropped to persuade law enforcement organizations to end their opposition and take a neutral stand – as they did last week – the ACLU says the bill will create among the strictest use-of-force standards of any state.

These organizations were lobbied by Gov. Gavin Newsom to accept Assembly Bill 392. After their decision to go neutral was announced, Newsom, Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon and Senate President Pro Tem Toni Atkins issued a joint statement endorsing Weber’s bill, seemingly guaranteeing its eventual approval.

The passage of the two reform measures would have been impossible to imagine earlier this century. Law enforcement unions had tight relationships with most elected Democrats, the same as with unions for teachers, nurses, service workers and government bureaucrats, providing them with heavy campaign contributions.

Gov. Gray Davis’ 2001 decision to give prison guards a five-year, 37 percent raise after its union helped him get elected in 1998 drew sharp blow-back from good-government advocates and newspaper editorial boards, especially after the 2003 revelation that Davis had badly underestimated the long-term cost of the labor deal. It was among the issues that helped lead to his unprecedented recall later that year.

2004 CHP scandal downplayed by state leaders

But the clout of law enforcement was again on display a year later. In 2004, the Sacramento Bee broke the story of a pervasive workers’ compensation scam in the upper reaches of the California Highway Patrol. The Bee found that 55 of the 65 senior CHP officers who had retired since 2000 had filed workers’ comp claims – with some citing injuries never reported while they were on the job. Their disability claims were routinely approved, sharply increasing their retirement benefits.

CHP Commissioner Dwight “Spike” Helmick agreed to retire after the “Chiefs Disease” scandal broke, then added to it by also claiming he was disabled because of vehicle accidents in the 1970s and 1980s. But neither the Legislature or Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger – who courted and won law enforcement support – agreed with calls to bring in an outside reformer to run the agency. Instead, Schwarzenegger chose Mike Brown, one of Helmick’s top aides.

Attorney General Bill Lockyer declined to prosecute the case, citing conflicts of interest because of his office’s close ties to the CHP. The case was assigned to Sacramento County District Attorney Jan Scully. But in 2007, she closed the investigation without bringing any charges. Scully said CHP officials and former officials were “unable or unwilling” to testify about the pension-spiking scheme. The story faded from the headlines.

But ties between lawmakers and police unions have weakened since then as the national outcry has grown over alleged police mistreatment of minorities, especially a series of fatal shootings of young African-American men in questionable circumstances. The California Democratic Party has also had an influx of newly elected progressive lawmakers who dislike the aggressive, confrontational policing style adopted by many departments after it was credited with reducing crime in New York City in the 1990s under Mayor Rudolph Giuliani.

Recent analyses of how Assembly Bill 392 overcame the obstacles that doomed a similar bill last year have focused on the March 2018 fatal shooting of Stephon Clark, an unarmed black father of two, in Sacramento.

The announcement two months ago that no officer would face charges for Clark’s death triggered an outcry so intense it became a national and international story that appeared to give Weber’s bill new momentum.


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  1. Ulysses Uhaul
    Ulysses Uhaul 30 May, 2019, 10:02

    We took in Baby and Vicious for their annual check up and Vitamin B shots.

    They are doing well and pleased to announce our, free to doomers, cd of their workday trailer yard highlights.

    So cute hanging with doomers in our Comfort Bunker!!!!

    Reply this comment
  2. Standing Fast
    Standing Fast 30 May, 2019, 12:44

    The problem of police use of excessive-force could be addressed more intelligently with attitude adjustment exercises for everybody. Hostility toward police by good citizens inspires hostility toward the public even by good officers. If we want police officers we can trust, they have to be able to trust us, too.

    Also, underfunded police departments usually do not have as many sworn officers as they should have to provide adequate protection. This results in overtime, and lots of it, too much. Burn-out happens earlier now than it used to when cities weren’t wasting our money on nonsense.

    I predict that one of the unintended consequences of this new law will be even more violence. I mean, if you were a criminal, who would you rather resist–a fully equipped peace officer who is obligated by law to take whatever action is necessary to protect himself, his colleagues, and most of all the public OR an under-equipped officer who is not allowed to do his job?

    Ask yourself, who would you be more likely to trust, a sleep-deprived policeman working his second full shift in 24 hours or the meth-crazed maniac he is trying to subdue to save your life?

    Reply this comment
  3. ricky smith
    ricky smith 2 June, 2019, 08:41

    ” …It says officers may only use lethal force if it is “necessary” for public safety. Existing law says officers can use such force if they believe it is “reasonable” to ensure public safety.
    The change qualifies as weasel words of the first order.
    The language seems similar but the legal differences may be substantial.
    Citizens have the right of self defense and use deadly force if they fear their lives are endangered.
    So does this legislation give officers less rights than an ordinary citizen? Might see this one in front of SCOTUS someday.

    Reply this comment
    • Standing Fast
      Standing Fast 19 June, 2019, 15:18

      Ricky Smith:
      You raised the right point in this discussion:

      What is the difference between the legal definition of “reasonable” and the legal definition of “necessary”?

      I cannot quote from memory the legal definition of “reasonable” as applied to law enforcement officers, but I can tell you that the way “necessary” is defined in the new bill the two are not interchangeable.

      Those who think this is an improvement do not understand the difference between reality and fiction. In reality, if a suspect is already reaching for his weapon an officer will not have time to draw his gun before the suspect is able to fire at him. That means officers have to draw their weapons before they know they will actually need to use them, or draw theirs the moment they see the suspect reach for his.

      How do I know this? Because years ago I contact POST to ask some questions nobody else did after the Tyisha Miller shooting. She was shot because she reached for the weapon in her lap, not because the officers were trigger-happy.

      So now tell me, how would you like to go into police work under these kind of unreasonable restraints?

      Reply this comment
  4. Queeg
    Queeg 19 June, 2019, 14:39

    We are due our monthly unpithy article-

    Reply this comment

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Chris Reed

Chris Reed

Chris Reed is a regular contributor to Cal Watchdog. Reed is an editorial writer for U-T San Diego. Before joining the U-T in July 2005, he was the opinion-page columns editor and wrote the featured weekly Unspin column for The Orange County Register. Reed was on the national board of the Association of Opinion Page Editors from 2003-2005. From 2000 to 2005, Reed made more than 100 appearances as a featured news analyst on Los Angeles-area National Public Radio affiliate KPCC-FM. From 1990 to 1998, Reed was an editor, metro columnist and film critic at the Inland Valley Daily Bulletin in Ontario. Reed has a political science degree from the University of Hawaii (Hilo campus), where he edited the student newspaper, the Vulcan News, his senior year. He is on Twitter: @chrisreed99.

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