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California Could Become the First State to Dramatically Restrict Police Use of Deadly Force

A state Senate bill, which would significantly restrict police's use deadly force, faces stiff opposition from law enforcement organizations.
A police officer in Bakersfield, California.

A police officer in Bakersfield, California.

In California, a controversial bill working its way through the state legislature would change the standard for when police can use deadly force. Should the bill pass, the state would become the nation's first to place significant restrictions on when law enforcement can open fire.

The Police Accountability and Community Protection Act was first introduced earlier this year following the shooting death of Stephon Clark, which came at the hands of Sacramento police who said they mistook his cell phone for a gun. Clark's death led to protests and further inflamed outrage over black men being shot by police across the United States: Studies have shown that unarmed young black men are killed by police at more than 20 times the rate of young white men.

The new bill would limit the use of deadly force to "situations where it is necessary to prevent imminent and serious bodily injury or death to the officer or another person."

Under existing law, an officer can use deadly force when there is "reasonable cause." That standard has not been updated since 1872, the Associated Press reports—making it the most outdated law on the use of deadly force in the country.

More people are killed by law enforcement officers in California—162 in 2017—than in any other state. And despite California's liberal reputation, state legislators have had difficulty passing bills related to police shootings and misconduct due to the heavy influence of law enforcement groups, according to the Sacramento Bee.

Law enforcement groups oppose the Police Accountability and Community Protection Act on the grounds that it would make police officers second-guess their decisions for fear that they'd be challenged in court.

Here's what those who support and oppose the bill had to say about it.

Assembly Member Shirley Weber, Author of the Bill

The power of police officers to use deadly force is perhaps the most significant responsibility we confer on any public official, and it must be guided by the goal of safeguarding human life. But current law sanctions police use of deadly force even when officers do not face an imminent threat to life or bodily security, and even when officers have reasonable alternatives at their disposal to safely address a situation without taking anyone's life.

David Swing, President of the California Police Chiefs Association

We have major concerns and believe this legislation will ultimately place our communities at greater risk by undermining our officers when we need them the most. Instead of criminalizing officers for their split-second decisions during emergency circumstances, we should find collaborative ways to reduce the number of officer-involved shootings through training and education.

Peter Bibring, Police Practices Director of the American Civil Liberties Union of California

[This bill] offers California a concrete solutionwhich we know has worked in other jurisdictionsto address the current crisis in policing which has led to the unnecessary deaths of far too many people.

We firmly believe that law enforcement officers should never kill when alternatives to deadly force exist. While this seems like a common-sense standard, it isn't the current practice in California or much of the country. ... [This bill] takes a modest approach—it changes California's legal standard for when police can use deadly force to match best practices already in place at some departmentsand that we know work to reduce police killings.

Brian Moriguchi, President of the California Coalition of Law Enforcement Associations

There is a reason the courts have been using the standard of reasonableness for many decades. This legislation is ridiculous and it is designed to put fear in police officers from doing their job. How can you tell anyone in a high-stress job where you have to make split-second decisions that they will no longer be judged on reasonableness? Instead, you must be right 100 percent of the time or you will be prosecuted and sued. Police will simply stop working if this law is passed. That is the true motivation behind Assembly Member Weber and other legislators. This is not good for public safety.

Seth W. Stoughton, University of South Carolina Professor of Law and Former Police Officer

The government's use of force against its own citizens is in tension with our most basic democratic notions of freedom, liberty, security, and autonomy.... The perception that police uses of force are appropriately regulated will, it is hoped, contribute to an increase in police legitimacy that can make officers safer and more effective.