In early February, Assemblymember Kevin McCarty, who represents West Sacramento and portions of Sacramento, introduced for the second time legislation that would require independent review of fatal police shootings.
Right now AB 284 is a spot bill without a lot of detail, being used as a place holder to comply with deadlines, but Assemblymember McCarty said he’s hopeful that the bill will become law this time. His previous effort in 2015, AB 86, which would have required that any officer-involved shooting that results in the death of a civilian must be reviewed by an independent law enforcement panel established within the California Department of Justice, fell shy of the votes needed.
This time, Assemblymember McCarty had particular concern over the handling of some local cases like Dazion Flenaugh and Joseph Mann.
Following the decision by the Sacramento DA not to charge the officers who killed Mr. Mann, Assemblymember McCarty released a statement, “Like many Sacramentans who saw the video, I question the conclusion by the D.A. that police acted within reason in the shooting and killing of Joseph Mann.”
He said, “For far too long, there has been distrust surrounding police shootings and the decisions by local D.A.’s that work closely with police officers. This decision, coupled with the decision of Ezell Ford in Los Angeles, is yet another example of why we need an independent investigation for an officer involved shooting where a civilian is killed.”
The assemblymember told the Vanguard that “the bill talks about the need to improve the public trust in officer involved shooting investigations.
“Unfortunately we see these events continuously – now we see them with our own eyes with body cameras and dashboard cameras,” he explained. “It’s a system right now that is untenable in trying to focus on public trust and integrity of the process. There’s an inherent conflict of interest with our local DA’s and law enforcement.
“Our local DA’s really can’t police the police,” he added. “I’m convinced that there has to be a better way about going about the process and bringing more independence and public trust along the way.”
Assemblymember McCarty explained that he thinks this legislation has a better chance this year. “In the last couple of years there have been some high profile states that have led the way and came up with a better way to do the investigations of fatal officer involved shootings.”
New York, Connecticut and Wisconsin all have new systems. He said his approach would have California take a look at those models.
In Wisconsin it was flaws into the investigation of the death of Dontre Hamilton in 2012 that led the state legislature to pass a law that requires external investigations of police shootings.
In that case, critics alleged that Milwaukee police officers were allowed to conduct interviews with witnesses that should have been carried out by a more objective agency, according to a report published by Wisconsin Public Radio.
While the Milwaukee County District Attorney declined to prosecute the officer, an independent investigation concluded that the officer “treated Mr. Hamilton as a dangerous criminal instead of following his training and treating Mr. Hamilton as an (emotionally disturbed person).” The statement noted that the officer’s approach, including the pat down, was “out-of-policy.”
That led to the officer being fired from the department. But protesters were angered that no charges were brought. An attorney for the family told the media, “When an officer says, ‘So, you wanna fight, huh?’ and then unloads 14 rounds into a citizen of this community taking a nap in a downtown park, something is wrong and we are going to get to the bottom of it.”
Governor Scott Walker signed legislation into law in mid-2014 that deaths in police custody be investigated by an outside agency, using independently gathered evidence. At the time it was the first of its kind in the nation.
Assemblymember McCarty is “cautiously optimistic” about the chances for passage, noting “the issue has been elevated to the national level and the state level.” He noted that, toward the end of her tenure as California’s attorney general, Kamala Harris “talked about the importance of having independent investigations in this process.”
When Xavier Beccera was confirmed last month as the new attorney general, he was asked about independent review of police shootings. He did not come out for or against, but agreed to look further into the issue.
The assemblymember noted that “unfortunately we’ve had high profile tragedies and people have seen it with their own two eyes.” He said between the Mann case in Sacramento and the Ford case down in Los Angeles, “I think it leaves a desire to many to bring about reform.”
For the assemblymember, he said, “I’m looking at the Attorney General’s office right now” as the body to carry out these independent investigations.”
While the Attorney General’s office is itself a branch of law enforcement, the assemblymember said he feels they are detached enough from the local scene to investigate these shootings in an objective manner.
“They have enough separation in my perspective that they wouldn’t be as conflicted and wouldn’t have as many close and direct conflict of interests (as local law enforcement or District Attorney’s office),” he explained. “They would bring independence but they would also bring law enforcement perspective.”
He said, “There are some people who would rather have us do a civilian review body.” While he believes that may be “an interesting idea” but says that “I don’t support it because in large part I think these incidents, these officer involved shootings are very complicated (with) tactics and law enforcement issues engaged, I prefer to have to have someone with expertise in law enforcement doing it.”
With reference to the recent Woodland Taser death and whether the bill could be extended to include officer-involved deaths that are not shootings, he said “I am open to that as well.” He referenced the high profile death of Freddie Gray in Baltimore. “We’ll look into that as well,” he said.
The bill was introduced on February 2 and he is hopeful to have a hearing in April.
—David M. Greenwald reporting