By Crescenzo Vellucci
Vanguard Sacramento Bureau
SACRAMENTO – Landmark legislation to reduce the number of civilian killings by California peace officers – although amended to limit opposition by unions representing those very same officers – passed another hurdle Tuesday at the State Capitol.
AB 392, dubbed the “California Act to Save Lives,” has been one of the most contested state legislative measures in recent years because of the epidemic of killings by peace officers of often unarmed people throughout the state with nearly 200 killed in the most recent year.
But, the bill had no opposition Tuesday. The Senate Public Safety Committee spent less than two hours hearing hundreds of people – from social justice groups to cities and counties – who touted the need for passage.
The legislation would define when police can use deadly force, and encourage them to de-escalate situations rather than use lethal force, said co-author Dr. Shirley Weber (D-San Diego), who has used, as she explained, her “political capital” to see the bill through. Assemblymember Kevin McCarty (D-Sacramento) is the other co-author of AB 392.
The measure was amended just last month to remove virtually all opposition. The “new” AB 392 was met by skepticism by some, but overall acceptance. Some street activists and others said the bill’s author went too far in appeasing the police unions, that it “sold out” for approval by police.
The legislation – which updates an 1872 law – requires officers use deadly force only when there is an imminent threat of death or serious bodily injury to them or others. The bill seeks, say authors, to “expand the use of de-escalation and other non-lethal policing strategies by making clear that officers must use other resources and techniques, whenever safe and feasible.” Officers could be prosecuted if they violate the new standard.
However, some supporters, now turned critics, believe the bill falls short of what’s needed to stop police killings because earlier versions would have mandated an officer use lethal force only after exhausting non-lethal means.
Legislative staff, speaking confidentially, said AB 392 never would have made it this far if there had not been a deal struck with officer unions, blaming the very strong “access” by law enforcement to lawmakers and dozens of more moderate Democrats, who vote more like pro-law and order Republicans.
But Weber was ecstatic Tuesday about the victory, and it seems almost academic that the bill will be approved by the full Senate soon. It has already passed the Assembly, and the governor has signaled he will sign it into law.
“The communities I serve gave me the political capital. I’ve been Black all my life (and) I’ve learned how to stand and fight for justice. California can do better,” said Weber, noting that the pain of losing loved ones to police bullets was diverse, including not just “Black and Brown” people.
“It was never the purpose of the bill…to judge police, but to preserve life. I don’t want to tell the story my (family) was told….400 years of fighting (for this). The need for reform is clear and long overdue. Time is up for injustice.”
She noted that AB 392 replaces a “vague current law and will reduce serious use of force and protect lives of police and public.”
Leticia Barron, who son Mauricio was killed in 2016 in Irvine by the California Highway Patrol, testified during the hearing Tuesday that her son was asking for help after being hit on the freeway and suffering a broken hand, food, and fractured neck and larynx.
“He could not speak let alone yell or move fast. One bullet hit his wrist and another his neck. His hands were up. He was not a threat, had no record and it was not suicide by cop,” Barron said.
Dionne Smith, whose son James Rivera, Jr., was killed in 2010 in Stockton in a garage, insisted that “I need to tell my son’s story.
“They wouldn’t let me see him when I went to the hospital. They wouldn’t let me hold him one last time. Later, I saw him with a golf ball size hole in his head, and a broken arm. If this bill would have been in place, my son would have not been executed inside a garage (with) 48 rounds fired at him,” said Smith, holding graphic photos of her dead son
The testimony went on for a long time Tuesday, and almost every location in the state – Chico, Sacramento, Stockton, Bakersfield, Irvine, San Diego, Walnut Creek, San Francisco, Salinas, Los Angeles, Oakland, among others – were cited where law enforcement killed residents, most often unarmed.
An ACLU researcher, who’s been documenting examples of officer shootings where people were shot in the back, running away, said the results were “horrifying.”
A recent military veteran contrasted his experience in the recent wars, noting there are “more rules for engagement in the military than we have for unarmed citizens.”
Sen. Sam Bradford (D-Gardena) was blunt in his comments.
“This is not a problem of police, but a problem of race,” he said, insisting that in 1872, there was no bigger problem than Blacks, who were free. Race is at its (police shootings) core. We see it in law enforcement. Growing up, I could see there was stark difference between my white friends and me. We (the country) were founded on racism. We exploited Black and Brown people, and annihilated the red man. We fear the police, and you cannot trust anyone you fear until we remove fear,” he said.
Sen. Holly Mitchell (D-Los Angeles) lauded Weber for her persistence, and added a “third wheel of the stool” (training component).” She praised “youth justice and others for powerful testament expressed, in particular the mothers, who show sheer strength in recounting for us painful stories to inform us as policy-makers.”
Sen. Scott Wiener (D-San Francisco) noted, “There are always disagreements with negotiations, but this will save lives. I cannot even begin to comprehend families coming out time and time again, and talk over and over about their tragedies, willing to endure that pain to make positive change.”
Sen. Hanna-Beth Jackson (D-Santa Barbara) admitted the bill “is not perfect but if we focus on interventions rather than deadly force we’ll change our communities. Law enforcement views itself as a paramilitary operation (but) the hope is that with training we’ll emphasize they’re supposed to be protecting the public.”
And Sen. Nancy Skinner (D-Berkeley) called AB 392 “A very needed policy.” She thanked those who testified, and while acknowledging that “the root of so many of our problems is racism,” added “I hope you do not have to come back to discuss your loved one’s death.”