A pair of California bills aimed at building greater trust between police and the communities they serve have both inched closer to reality — despite a deep-pocketed law-enforcement lobby that donates to the campaigns of most California lawmakers.
If passed in their respective houses, AB 931 and SB1421 could soon land on Gov. Jerry Brown’s desk — where he could unmake rules he himself signed into law 40 years ago that made California one of the nation’s most opaque states when it comes to releasing police records to the public.
Both bills were introduced in February, only a month before Sacramento police fatally shot Stephon Clark, an unarmed black man, while he was standing in his backyard.
Clark’s death followed a string of controversial police shootings across the state. Since 2015, police have shot and killed 566 people in California. Five people have been shot and killed by police in the Mission District since 2011.
“Over the last couple years, the response of communities to unjustifiable police use of force has created a lot of attention and a call for change,” said Abdi Soltani, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California, which is advocating for the bills.
“Certainly the tragic killing of Stephon Clark, and the community’s reaction to it, has provided yet another reason why these bills are necessary,” he added.
AB931, authored by Assemblywoman Shirley Weber and Assemblyman Kevin McCarty, is currently in the Senate Rules Committee, but is likely headed to a full vote in the Senate on August 31, according to Terry Schanz, McCarty’s chief of staff. It would greatly limit the situations in which a police officer can use deadly force.
At present, officers can use force when there is a “reasonable” fear of harm to the officer or another person. The new law would require officers to use de-escalation and non-lethal before they resort to deadly force — essentially, only when deadly force is absolutely necessary.
The legislation would also limit deadly force on fleeing suspects “to only those situations in which the officer has probable cause to believe that the person has committed, or intends to commit, a felony involving serious bodily injury or death,” according to the bill’s text.
If this legislation had been on the books this year, it would have made it difficult for the San Francisco Police Department to justify at least two police shootings, including one in Bayview where a rookie officer shot through the window of his car at a fleeing suspect and one in North Beach in which the officer shot at a suspect as he fled after officers stopped a group of men for drinking in public.
Law-enforcement groups, including the California Association of Highway Patrolmen, California Police Chiefs Association and Police Officers’ Research Association of California, strongly oppose the legislation.
“AB 931, in its current form, is detrimental to law enforcement and puts officers and the public at risk,” reads a statement on the Police Officers Research Association of California website. “This is our number-one issue this year, and every effort is being put forth to keep the bill from moving forward.”
Aside from the opposition, the bill has quite a long route to the governor’s desk. Right now, it is sitting with the Rules Committee while the legislation’s authors “address any remaining concerns with stakeholders,” according to Schanz, referring to law-enforcement groups as well as Gov. Jerry Brown.
“It’s a sensitive topic for law enforcement,” he said. “We’re working with them and the governor to address any questions he might have to hopefully get his signature on the bill.”
SB 1421, authored by Sen. Nancy Skinner and slated for a vote on the Assembly floor soon, would be the first bill to successfully weaken a California law that strictly protects the release of any police officer’s so-called “personnel file.”
Skinner’s bill would make police disciplinary records open to the public if an officer is involved in a serious use-of-force incident, including a police shooting or use of a stun gun or a baton-like weapon.
The public could also request the records if an officer has been found guilty of committing sexual assault or committing acts of dishonesty, such as falsifying evidence.
“This is the furthest this bill has gone in almost 40 years to address this issue,” said the ACLU’s Soltani.
Former State Sen. Mark Leno attempted to pass similar legislation in 2007 and 2016. Also in 2007, then-State Sen. Gloria Romeo introduced legislation to make police officer disciplinary records public after the California Supreme Court ruled in 2006 that police disciplinary hearings should be confidential. That bill died following pressure from state police unions.
If Skinner’s bill passes and is signed by Brown, it would put California “in the middle of the pack” in terms of making such information available. Until then, “California is now at the bottom, in terms of access to this information,” Soltani said.
In fact, California is only one of three states that specifically protects police disciplinary files. It is the only state that restricts prosecutors from accessing the files. Police records of actions that resulted in a suspension are public in 21 states.
In fact, until 2006, the San Francisco Police Commission, which conducts disciplinary proceedings for officers, held such meetings in public. On Wednesday, Mission Local used records from those meetings to describe past misconduct by an officer accused last week of repeatedly harassing another officer for his homosexuality. This behavior occurred in 1997 and the officer was suspended in 2001. Had his misdeeds taken place a decade later, they likely would have been veiled from the public.
The bill is now formally opposed by the 17,000-member Police Officers Research Association of California, but the union’s president, Brian Marvel, told the San Francisco Chronicle last week that he no longer opposes the release of substantiated misconduct records, and added that the union is considering withdrawing its opposition. That has not yet happened.
“PORAC has met with Senator Skinner, her staff and the bill’s sponsors on many occasions and are working with her office on potential amendments,” reads a statement of PORAC’s website. “In the meantime, PORAC remains opposed.”