Diverging bills aim to curb police shootings: Tougher legal standards vs. better training and policies

Negotiations have broken down between law enforcement and civil rights advocates on legislation to curb police shootings, with each side proposing their own bill meant to reduce the number of Californians killed by police—a development that indicates the Capitol’s dominant Democrats will likely be divided as the emotional issue of police shootings takes center stage this spring.

Assemblywoman Shirley Weber is reviving a controversial idea she proposed last year: to change the legal standard for justifying deadly force so that police can only lawfully kill when it’s “necessary” to avoid imminent danger.

“Not when you think or feel fear, but when you know, given the totality of the circumstances, that the person trying to be apprehended is going to do harm to you, the officer, or someone in the immediate environment,” Weber, a San Diego Democrat, said in an interview.

The current legal standard, known as the “reasonable” standard, justifies deadly force whenever a “reasonable officer” in the same circumstance would do the same thing. It stems from a 1989 U.S. Supreme Court case and is the reason so few police are prosecuted when they kill. Law enforcement officials see the reasonable standard as a critical legal protection they need to perform a dangerous job, and vehemently opposed Weber’s bill last year.

Weber, who plans to announce the bill at a Capitol press conference this morning, said a new standard will make officers safer too.

“We believe the necessary standard is an absolute, and a standard that has to exist because it talks about the sanctity of life,” she said.

“I think we all have always believed that officers only used deadly force when they had no other options available to them. That has always been my perception, and I discovered later that it’s not really true.”

Her legislation is backed by a coalition of civil rights groups and families who have lost loved ones to police shootings. Law enforcement groups are likely to fight it.

Instead, law enforcement groups announced separate legislation Tuesday, backing a bill to require police departments to adopt policies that detail techniques for avoiding force and guidelines for when deadly force is appropriate, and to develop a new statewide training program to educate officers on use of force rules. The bill, which has not yet been assigned a number, will be carried by state Sen. Anna Caballero, a Salinas Democrat.

It will “provide the utmost and highest standard of training for our officers around California… to find ways to reduce incidences of the use of force,” David Swing, President of California Police Chiefs Association, said in a phone call with reporters.

“The sanctity of life is important for all of our peace officers in California. This bill moves the needle on ensuring that we have policies and training that helps preserve the sanctity of life.”

Their bill also changes the legal standard for using force, but in a way that is narrower than Weber’s.

The law enforcement coalition, which includes rank-and-file officers in the Peace Officers Research Association of California, is also asking the state for $300 million over the next three years to provide more homeless services, mental health professionals and substance abuse programs with which police can coordinate.

Neither side would comment on the other’s proposal and it wasn’t immediately clear Tuesday if the two policies could eventually co-exist. Civil rights advocates and law enforcement lobbyists have been negotiating for months over use-of-force legislation—and trying to find common ground. The fact that they introduced separate proposals, carried by different Democratic lawmakers, suggests they couldn’t agree.

“While these two pieces of legislation make their way through the process, I will continue to be engaged to find common ground,” said Senate President Pro Tempore Toni Atkins, a San Diego Democrat, said in a statement.

The schism also indicates that the law enforcement groups are trying a new tactic this year, one that may complicate the politics inside the Capitol. Last year, police set out to quash Weber’s legislation, and they succeeded. This year, their actions indicate that they expect Democrats to act on the issue of police accountability, and are proactively defining their own solution.

Whether Democrats, who hold roughly three-quarters of the Legislature’s seats, will embrace both proposals—or just one of them—becomes the next big question.

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