By Lizzy Buchen
As a nation, we must address the brutal reality and deadly consequences of police violence. We have seen far too many people, particularly Black and brown people, killed by police. We have seen too many families and communities shattered by loss and tragedy. Enough is enough. We must limit when police officers can use deadly force and take someone’s life.
Current laws in California fail to protect against unnecessary killings by police officers. Officers here — and in much of the country — can use deadly force regardless of whether it was necessary to prevent death or serious bodily injury. They can kill even when alternatives to deadly force — like issuing a verbal warning, repositioning and calling for backup, or using lower levels of force — are available, safe, and feasible.
It is unacceptable that today in California police officers can legally kill someone even when they don’t have to.
Preserving and protecting human life must be the top concern for law enforcement officers, and our laws should likewise reflect that. Unfortunately, that is not the case. According to the California Department of Justice, police officers killed 172 Californians in 2017 alone, and they did so with startling racial disparities. Of the 172 people killed, more than two-thirds were people of color. Of those who were completely unarmed when killed by police, three quarters were people of color.
California police officers are not only killing people of color at disproportionate rates; they are also killing more people than most departments in the country. California police kill people at a rate 37 percent higher than the national per capita average. A 2015 report by the Guardian found that police in Kern County killed more people per capita than in any other county in the U.S.
The course of action is clear. California lawmakers must start by changing the standard for when police can use deadly force.
That’s why the ACLU of California affiliates — together with our partner organizations, including those led by people directly impacted by police violence — are supporting AB 392: The California Act to Save Lives. The legislation introduced on Wednesday specifically addresses police violence by updating California’s deadly use-of-force law.
AB 392 is a common-sense bill that is modeled after best practices already in place in some departments in the U.S. We know these practices work to reduce killings by police. As with these other bills, AB 392 will clarify that police officers can use deadly force only when there are no alternatives that would prevent death or serious bodily injury. Officers’ conduct leading up to a shooting will also be considered when determining whether deadly force is justified — not just the moment the officer pulls the trigger.
The California Department of Justice recently released a report recommending that the Sacramento Police Department update its use-of-force guidelines following the shooting death of Stephon Clark in Sacramento. Their guidelines align closely with AB 392. Specifically, they call for Sacramento police to more clearly define when force is authorized, require that officers use de-escalation whenever possible, and mandate that officers exhaust all reasonably available alternatives before using deadly force.
Research shows that officers at agencies with stricter use-of-force policies kill fewer people and are less likely to be killed or seriously injured themselves. After Seattle implemented a new use-of-force policy that contains some of the same key elements that AB 392 does, a study by a federal court monitor showed that the policy significantly reduced mid-level and serious uses of force without any increase in injuries to officers or the crime rate.
There is no reason for California lawmakers to shy away from establishing stricter policies on deadly use of force that can prevent unnecessary shootings, keep officers safe, and ensure public safety. AB 392 is urgently needed because every day that goes by without addressing California’s epidemic of police violence is another day that a police officer may violently take another life.
Lizzy Buchen is a Legislative Advocate for ACLU of Northern California