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New state law redefines police use-of-force standard

Black Lives Matter drops its sponsorship of bill

Tanu Henry California Black Media | 8/22/2019, midnight

Gov. Gavin Newsom signed into law late last week one of the strongest measures in the country intended to deter police officers from killing civilians while pursuing criminal suspects.

After a grueling yearlong process that survived bitter fights, tense negotiations and impassioned speeches, on July 8 the Senate voted 29-1 to pass AB-392, the California Act to Save Lives.

In May, law enforcement organizations, once staunch opponents of the bill, held a private meeting with the governor and members of the legislature and reached common ground on some of the language in the legislation. Advocates of the bill said those amendments helped the bill gain wider support among members of the Assembly and Senate, many of whom were strongly opposed when the proposal was first introduced.

Assemblymember Shirley Weber (D-San Diego) introduced the legislation she co-authored with Assemblymember Kevin McCarty (D- Sacramento). Both lawmakers are African-American.

Inspired in part by the 2018 shooting of an unarmed 22-year-old African-American man, Stephon Alonzo Clark, by police officers in Sacramento, the bill proposes changes to California’s penal code regarding “justifiable homicides” by “peace officers.” Its language requires cops to only use deadly force “in defense of human life” when a suspect poses an “imminent threat of death or serious bodily injury to themselves or others.”

Senate Pro Tem Toni Atkins (D-San Diego) championed the bill in the Senate.

“With so many unnecessary deaths, I think everyone agrees that we need to change how deadly force is used in California,” said Weber, who is also chair of the California Legislative Black Caucus. “We can now move a policy forward that will save lives and change the culture of policing in California.”

The bill, which was initially sponsored by the civil justice group Black Lives Matter (BLM), also calls for police officers to rely on training and exhaust all resources available to them, whenever possible, before shooting to kill. The bill defines “imminent harm” as a threat that must be “instantly confronted.” It rules out fear of future harm - no matter how great or likely the potential danger is.

In April, the “Act to Save Lives” cleared its first hurdle when the Assembly Public Safety Committee voted 5-2 in favor of the legislation.

Shortly after, state law enforcement groups – including the California Highway Patrol, the Peace Officers Research Association of California and the California State Sheriffs’ Association – announced that they had taken a neutral position and would no longer oppose the proposal after meeting with Gov. Newsom to smooth out differences.

When Weber presented the revised version of AB392 with the input of the police groups, Black Lives Matter dropped its sponsorship.

“We knew that it would be an uphill battle, especially with police associations opposing the bill,” said Melina Abdullah, co-founder of the Los Angeles chapter of BLM. “Unfortunately, in efforts to get law enforcement to lift their opposition, the bill was so significantly amended that it is no longer the kind of meaningful legislation we can support.”

In its original form, AB-392 explicitly redefined the state’s legal standard for police officers’ use of lethal force, replacing the description “reasonable” with “necessary.” Necessary force, it spelled out, is when “there is no reasonable alternative.”