Dash cam footage from the Kieta O'Neil shooting.
Body camera footage shows Officer Christopher Samayoa shoot carjacking suspect Keita O'Neil, who was unarmed.

Police interests score major victory

On Monday, supporters of a bill that would change how police are permitted to use deadly force rolled a casket bearing the phrase “172 killed” around the State Capitol to highlight the California men and women who had deadly encounters with police in 2017 — and a legislative attempt to make a change.

Little did they know that, only two days later, late Wednesday evening, AB 931 would need a casket of its own as the legislation perished before reaching the Senate floor for a vote.

The ostensible reason? The clock ran out. The actual reason? It’s muddier than that.

“Unfortunately, the legislative calendar does not provide the necessary time to clearly resolve the concerns that need to be addressed for the bill to pass the two legislative houses and get to the Governor’s desk for his signature,” Senate President Pro Tem Toni Atkins said in a statement.

“Therefore,” she continued, “we are holding the bill this year and will resume discussions this fall.”

The bill was ambitious. It would have changed the police use-of-force protocol so that officers would have to exhaust all “reasonable alternatives,” such as de-escalation and less-lethal force, before resorting to deadly force — essentially, only being allowed to use deadly force when it’s absolutely “necessary.”

AB 931 was drafted amid public uproar over the death of Stephon Clark, who in March was shot and killed by Sacramento police while standing, unarmed, in his own backyard. His was only the latest in a long list of controversial police shootings of unarmed people of color.

Atkins and Assemblywoman Shirley Weber, who co-authored the bill, said in separate statements that they will work to present new legislation in January aimed at police use of force.

Essentially, without more consensus by backers and opponents of the legislation, the bill was bound to fail on the Senate floor.

“This was the decision of the Pro Tem to hold it,” said Joe Kocurek, a spokesperson for Weber. “I can’t speak for [Atkins], but ultimately we had a way to go to get the votes we needed.”  

Extremely influential statewide police unions — including the Peace Officers Research Association of California and the California Police Chiefs Association, both of whom contribute large sums of money to most members of the legislature — vehemently opposed the legislation. They said the proposed use-of-force standard would cause officers to second-guess themselves in possibly dangerous situations, putting their lives in danger or making it easier for suspects to get away.

Sources familiar with the legislation’s path, but who were not permitted speak on the record, said that in the days leading up to a possible vote on the Senate floor, law enforcement groups instilled confusion among senators and successfully “worked” the chamber to defeat the bill.

Indeed, PORAC — a 17,000 member statewide police union — has contributed approximately $12 million to California lawmakers over the last 21 years.  

Even before the legislation was “shelved,” it was considerably weakened in the Senate late last week, when a key provision that would have made it easier to prosecute police who kill civilians was removed from the bill’s language. This was done down the stretch to garner more support.

That, apparently, was not sufficient.  

“The political reality for the (California) Legislature is that they’re in the pockets of the police union for decades,” said John Crew, a former police policy attorney for the ACLU.

Yet, he noted, “The full understanding of the current political clout of the police unions isn’t going to be reached until we see what happens to the other bill, SB 1421.”

SB 1421, also introduced in the wake of Clark’s death, would make most police misconduct records open to the public — including instances in which officers used deadly force, or sustained complaints of sexual assault and dishonesty on the job, such as falsifying records or lying.

The fate of this piece of legislation, which was authored by Sen. Nancy Skinner, will be decided before Friday in the Assembly. “I can’t predict what will happen until votes comes up,” Skinner told Mission Local as she was voting for another piece of legislation on the Senate floor. The bill “has already gotten further than any other bills on this subject matter, so I feel very good and proud about that.”

“But the last week of sessions is a hit-or-miss time,” she added. “So we have no more than 24 hours.”

Asked if she would introduce another piece of legislation on police misconduct files in SB 1421 fails, she said, “I’ll answer that once we see what happens.”

Photo: Body camera footage reveals Officer Chris Samayoa fatally shooting Keita O’Neil, an unarmed carjacking suspect

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Julian grew up in the East Bay and moved to San Francisco in 2014. Before joining Mission Local, he wrote for the East Bay Express, the SF Bay Guardian, and the San Francisco Business Times.

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