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Bills target police conduct, use of force

Sacramento police officers preparing for protests over the shooting of Stephon Clark. (Photo: Kevin Cortopassi, Flickr Creative Commons)

The recent police killing of an unarmed black Sacramento man has left protesters and local politicians demanding revisions to California’s Peace Officer’s Bill of Rights — the decades-old protocol for officers facing disciplinary investigation.

But state lawmakers, despite the national attention directed at the shooting of 22-year-old Stephon Clark, have not introduced legislation or even made reference to the 1976 law, known as the POBR.

At least not directly.

“These bills are certainly related to the issue of police accountability.” — Lizzie Buchen

Two bills related to police use of force introduced in recent weeks would affect some of the more contentious elements of the POBR.

Senate Bill 1421, introduced by state Sen. Nancy Skinner, D-Berkeley,  would open police disciplinary records related to use of force, sexual assault and on-the-job dishonesty to the public and hiring agencies.

The other bill, AB 931, by Democratic Assemblymembers Shirley Weber of San Diego and Kevin McCarty of Sacramento, would lower the bar for disciplinary action in cases involving deadly use of force by a California peace officer.

“These bills are certainly related to the issue of police accountability,” said Lizzie Buchen of the American Civil Liberties Union, which supports both bills. “They don’t touch [the Peace Officers’ Bill of Rights], though.”

When the POBR was signed into law 42 years ago in the final year of Gov. Jerry Brown’s first term, it was a popular piece of legislation supported by even the ACLU. It was meant to protect honest, lower level cops from over-zealous investigations.

The state capital has seen demonstrations almost daily, with protesters calling for an overhaul of the POBR.

But critics argue that over time the law has expanded and transformed into something that shields troubled officers and has made California’s law enforcement agencies among the least transparent in the nation when it comes to disciplinary action against officers.

Now, in the wake of the March 18 shooting in which police killed Clark in his grandmother’s backyard when officers mistook his cellphone for a gun, the state capital has seen demonstrations almost daily, with protesters calling for an overhaul of the POBR.

Sacramento Councilmember Larry Carr, who represents Clark’s district, also called for revisions to the POBR, among other use of force laws, in a March 29 Sacramento Bee op-ed. He has since asked for a legislative team to connect with state lawmakers.

But the political will at the Capitol for revisiting the POBR is unclear.

Historically, officials have had trouble pushing police accountability legislation in the face of powerful police unions and deep-pocketed lobbying groups like the California Correctional Peace Officers Association. And it appears few electeds feel comfortable going after any law with “bill of rights” in its name.

“The public’s activism in the last few weeks, and their energy, has truly been inspiring.” — Shirley Weber

“These are difficult bills and time will tell whether the support among my colleagues has grown enough,” Skinner said. “I think that there is broad support across the state because it’s basic good government.”

Two years ago, lawmakers thwarted Sen. Mark Leno’s SB 1286, a bill similar to SB 1421. Skinner says her law is somewhat narrower in scope, which may increase support. But events in the streets of Sacramento are also shaping the conversation.

“It’s absolutely changing the tenor here,” said Buchen. “There are protests every day. It’s on the front page of the newspaper every day. The community is calling for change and the legislature is responding to that call.”

While SB 1421 had been in the works months before the Stephon Clark shooting, Assemblymember Weber has couched AB 931 as a response to community demonstrations and disappointment.

“The public’s activism in the last few weeks, and their energy, has truly been inspiring,” Weber said at a press conference introducing AB 931. “It is time now that we as legislators match that energy, and do the right thing by pushing for smart and effective reform.”

Both bills have garnered significant national attention after Stephon Clark’s shooting, and Sacramento County political races are also under the microscope.

Current state law allows for deadly use of force when an officer has “reasonable fear” when reaching for their gun. This bill would tighten the instances of when officers can use deadly use of force to when it is “necessary,” and would place a focus on de-escalation, nonlethal force and basing protocol around the sanctity of human life.

But Weber and McCarty are matched up against a powerful adversary in the Peace Officers Research Association of California, a police union of some 70,000 members. Aligning with other peace officer interest groups, PORAC has come out strongly against the bill, calling it “irresponsible legislation.”

Both bills have garnered significant national attention after Stephon Clark’s shooting, and Sacramento County political races are also under the microscope.

Civil rights activist and former New York Daily News columnist Shaun King recently blew the whistle on police unions donating $13,000 to incumbent Sacramento County District Attorney Anne Marie Schubert’s campaign days after Clark’s death.

In response, King’s Real Justice PAC has donated some $35,000 in donations and in-kind contributions to lead challenger Noah Phillips, and about $7,500 to progressive Sacramento County sheriff challenger Milo Fitch.

Gov. Brown’s office declined to comment on either current police accountability bills or the prospect of revisiting the POBR.

But critics and backers of the POBR are waiting to see whether Brown will be willing to sign legislation in the final year of his final term that would walk back the law he signed in the final year of his first term.

“As usual, California should lead the way,” Weber said at the AB 931 press conference. “If California can’t do it, who can?”

 


  • Elwood678

    Jerry Brown signed POBR into law!

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