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The politics of achieving political reform

Practical Politics

David L. Horne, Ph.D ow contribuor | 6/6/2019, midnight

In politics, the usual way the game is played is that some of those who may start out with you on the same team amid broad agreement, may not be there when the issue is compromised into an acceptable form for legislative or committee passage.

So it was with State Assembly member Dr. Shirley Weber (D-San Diego) and her stalwart attempt to achieve a meaningful change in police-use-of-lethal force-tactics in California. In the wake of Stephon Clark’s killing in Sacramento, as an unarmed Black man, and the non-prosecution of the police who killed him, along with many other similar incidences, Assemblywoman Weber had mounted a spirited campaign to get the state standard changed from its current one of “reasonable” use ( what another policeman in a similar situation would reasonably have done) to a much more strict standard that would dictate that lethal force be used “only when necessary and there are no other options available” as the new rule.

That campaign brought out loud, sustained criticism by most of the state’s police unions and associations, especially the California Police Chiefs Association (CPCA). Simultaneously, it coalesced an amalgamation of the ACLU, Black Lives Matter, and various Silicone Valley activist groups pushing to get that change approved under what was then labelled, AB 931. In the 2018-19 legislative session, that bill was soundly defeated.

Undeterred, however, Assemblywoman Weber and her staff kept the fires burning, had long community and private discussions with the opponents of the legislation, came up with agreeable compromise language, and used all that to introduce AB 392 during the current legislative session. The compromise language in this new bill introduced the “only when necessary” standard, i.e., “based on the totality of the circumstances in the situation, officers are to use deadly force only when necessary.”

With that new language, all police opposition to the new bill ceased, and the assembly voted unanimously in favor of the bill. The ACLU and other civil rights organizations loudly praised the bill, but Black Lives Matter and a large number of the other activist groups formerly rejected it, saying it made the standard too weak and dependent on court interpretations rather than providing a strict, tangible definition of what “necessary” meant.

Meanwhile, the bill has gone to the State Senate, where there already exists a companion bill focused on new, improved police training for the 80,000 or more California police officers. With the sustained support of Speaker of the Assembly Anthony Rendon and Senate Pro Tem Toni Atkins, it is considered a done deal that AB 392 will pass the state legislature in the next few days. Gov. Gavin Newsom has already registered his support for the bill, and has promised to quickly sign it once it comes to his desk.

AB 392 will be real legal change regarding an issue that has bedeviled California and the USA for a long time. No, it will not be perfect, but California’s new law will become the strictest in this country, and may serve as a model for other states to follow. This is in spite of the fall-off of significant community activist support in the process.

Purists are rarely, if ever, satisfied when depending on state or federal legislation to solve a public problem. It is a bitter lesson to learn and swallow, but in the game of politics, compromise will ever be the language of successful reform. As other wise political heads have often said, those who want and are willing to work for significant social change, must learn not to sacrifice the public good achieved in favor of continuing to fight only for the perfect.

Professor David L. Horne is founder and executive director of PAPPEI, the Pan African Public Policy and Ethical Institute, which is a new 501(c)(3) pending community-based organization or non-governmental organization (NGO). It is the stepparent organization for the California Black Think Tank which still operates and which meets every fourth Friday.

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