California's Governor calls for police reform, not disbanding

Wednesday, June 10, 2020

By Nick Cahill and Nicholas Lovino for Courthouse News

SACRAMENTO — Governor Gavin Newsom declared in an interview Tuesday that he will not support disbanding police departments or completely wiping out their funding, as California lawmakers knelt on the steps of the state Capitol to show their support for police reform.

“If you’re calling for eliminating the police, no,” Newsom said. “If you’re talking about reimagining and taking the opportunity to look at the responsibilities we’ve placed on law enforcement, whether it be social work or mental health workers and getting involved in disputes where a badge and a gun are unnecessary, then I think absolutely this is an opportunity to look at all of the above.”

The governor spoke with Politico reporter Carla Marinucci at Miss Ollie’s restaurant in downtown Oakland Tuesday after meeting with black business owners and community leaders.

Newsom said he first became familiar with the “defund the police” movement when he served as mayor of San Francisco from 2004 to 2011. The governor pledged his support for a serious review of police responsibilities, including the expectation that police respond to problems involving mental health, addiction and homelessness. He called the opportunity to alter police responsibilities “long overdue.”

“Why are we burdening law enforcement in the first place with these responsibilities,” Newsom asked.

The governor noted steps the state has already taken to reform law enforcement, including legislation passed last year that raises the bar for police to use deadly force from “reasonable” to “necessary.”

That legislation also requires training for implicit bias and de-escalation tactics aimed at reducing the need for physical force be included in police academy programs. Newsom said the state poured about $35 million into police officer training last year.

The governor said he is also pushing to reform the state’s probation system and shrink the footprint of prisons in California.

A few hours before the governor spoke in Oakland Tuesday, dozens of California lawmakers took a knee in front of the state Capitol to pay tribute to George Floyd. They also vowed to support pending police and criminal justice reforms.

Pressed to pass a budget and decide the fate of a series of bills over the next three weeks, lawmakers said they would use the momentum sparked by the nationwide protests to fight systemic racism.

Los Angeles Assemblywoman Sydney Kamlager-Dove coordinated the tribute for Floyd and led lawmakers as they knelt in a somber moment of silence. The Democrat cataloged the names of black Americans killed and abused by law enforcement, including Eric Garner, Freddie Gray and Breonna Taylor, and said lawmakers have a responsibility to pay tribute to the victims of police violence.

“To be protectors of the status quo in this time would be complicit,” said Kamlager-Dove. “This is 8 minutes, 46 seconds, a tribute to George Floyd and the young and the breathless.”

Kamlager-Dove, who chairs the Select Committee on Incarcerated Women, was joined by the leaders of both chambers and other leading lawmakers. Spaced six feet apart in the early morning sun and with the Capitol building behind them, many of the masked lawmakers recited Floyd’s last words.

“I can’t breathe,” said one member. “Please officer, you’re killing me.”

The tribute in downtown Sacramento comes as lawmakers are scurrying to pass bills in a legislative session truncated by the coronavirus pandemic. Lawmakers must act on bills introduced in each house by the end of the month, including measures designed to fight racial inequality and limit longstanding use-of-force police tactics.

Former police officer and current Assemblyman Mike Gipson, D-Carson, is pushing a proposal that would bar law enforcement from using carotid holds while restraining suspects.

Officers are supposed to use a grappling technique often referred to as a stranglehold to control suspects in lieu of lethal force. The hold, in which force is applied to both sides of the neck, has been banned by several California law enforcement agencies in the wake of Floyd’s death in Minneapolis.

Last week, Newsom endorsed the ban of the controversial stranglehold and said he would sign the bill if eventually cleared by the Legislature. He also called for the creation of standardized crowd control measures after the various clashes between law enforcement and protesters.

“Carotid hold that literally is designed to stop people’s blood from flowing to their brain; that has no place any longer,” Newsom said on June 5.

Meanwhile, a group of Assembly Democrats are planning to introduce legislation that would limit law enforcement’s use of rubber bullets. Their proposal is not yet finalized but they say it was prompted after watching officers pelt protesters and journalists “for no apparent reason.”

State Sen. Scott Wiener, D-San Francisco, illuminated California’s role in “pioneering” biased sentencing laws that spurred the state and country’s mass incarceration crisis. He called decades-old determinate sentencing laws the “elephant in the Capitol.”

“Mass incarceration and police brutality are not separate cancers, they are symbiotic cancers that feed off each other and strengthen each other,” Wiener said.

State Sen. Steven Bradford, vice chair of the California Legislative Black Caucus, said the state can’t waste a valuable opportunity to combat police brutality and systemic racism. He called the nationwide protests “amazing, peaceful and diverse” and said it was time for those who aren’t black to join the fight against racism.

“It’s not enough now to say I’m not a racist; now it’s time to stand up and demonstrate it,” Bradford said.

Bradford, D-Gardena, spoke in support of the carotid ban, a task force to study the lingering effects of slavery and potential reparations for black Californians and a bill that would overturn the state’s ban on affirmative action admissions policies at state universities. The bills are all up for hearings later this month.

“Join us in playing a leading role in the next coming attraction in reforming racism and police brutality in this state as well as this country,” Bradford told his colleagues.