Some wins, some losses with new California policing laws

Thursday, September 10, 2020

By Marilyn Bechtel for People's World Magazine

As this year’s California legislative session, compressed by the COVID-19 pandemic, rushed to a close after midnight Aug. 31, a portfolio of bills to regulate policing – many inspired by recent police killings of unarmed black and Latino men and women – passed the Assembly and state Senate and headed to Gov. Gavin Newsom for signature.

At the same time, several measures seen as essential by racial justice advocates failed to pass, occasioning severe criticism from their supporters.

Among a number of measures now on the governor’s desk is Assembly Bill 1185, by Assemblyman Kevin McCarty, D-Sacramento, to let counties create oversight boards or designate an inspector general to oversee the county sheriff’s department, with subpoena powers.

At a virtual police reform rally he led Aug. 26 – just days before the legislative deadline – McCarty cited repeated “massive payouts of taxpayer dollars for unnecessary force, death in custody in our county jails, and many times these come from sheriffs’ departments that don’t have proper oversight.”

He told of the time the Sacramento County sheriff tried to lock out the person in charge of oversight because the sheriff didn’t like the overseer’s recommendations, adding that AB 1185 “would say, ‘None of that!’ – knowing police reform is morally right and also impacts our taxpayers.”

Another such bill, also by McCarty, AB 1506, would let local law enforcement and district attorneys more frequently ask the state Attorney General to formally review instances where a police officer used force resulting in death or harm. Under the measure, a new police practices division would be set up to handle local agencies’ requests to review policies on the use of force. McCarty, who had unsuccessfully introduced a similar measure in 2017, called AB 1506 “a significant step … It’s an inherent conflict of interest when police police themselves.”

Two bills awaiting the governor’s signature would affect the way police are hired and evaluated.

AB 846, by Assemblymember Autumn Burke, D-South Bay, would update mental and emotional health screening for law enforcement officers to include evaluation for explicit and implicit biases including race, ethnicity, gender, nationality, religion, disability, and sexual orientation. It also requires police departments to update their job descriptions to deemphasize paramilitary aspects and emphasize community interaction and collaborative problem-solving.

Burke said the bill “will help ensure the right people are hired for our public safety and that law enforcement can interact appropriately with diverse populations across the state of California.”

AB 1299, by Assemblymember Rudy Salas, D-Bakersfield, would mandate law enforcement agencies to alert the Commission on Peace Officer Standards and Training if a police officer quits or is fired while being investigated for misconduct. A police department would have to finish the evaluation and post details of its findings, establishing a record to be disclosed if an officer sought another law enforcement job.

Noting that the city of McFarland, in his Assembly district, was reported last year to have hired 13 officers with “questionable pasts,” Salas said his bill would provide transparency and accountability, and assure that another community will have access to the information when they are making a hiring decision.

AB 1196, by Assemblymember Mike Gipson, D-Carson, would ban use of the carotid artery/chokehold by law enforcement. “I call it the George Floyd bill,” Gipson said. Expressing appreciation for the governor’s executive order banning the procedure, Gipson said the order would only last as Newsom remains in that office, and pointed out that “since 2000, 73 people have died from these holds in California. Twenty-seven percent were black people, 26% were Latinos, which makes up 53% people of color that these methods are being targeted and used on.”

AB 2054, the CRISES Act, by Assemblymember Sydney Kamlager, D-Los Angeles, would create a pilot grant program to fund community organizations so they could serve as first responders instead of police, handle crises involving homelessness, substance abuse, mental health episodes, and other issues. The bill passed both legislative houses with near-unanimous support.

Law enforcement officers “are not trained to solve problems, to de-escalate, to resolve problems,” Kamlager said. “People want emergencies stopped and problems solved, they don’t want police to come in and arrest folks. That is oftentimes not the solution that black, brown, low-income communities are asking for. Our skin color should not be our death sentence.”

This concept is also being advanced across the country by activists and organizations working to radically change the way law enforcement functions.

Among policing-related measures that didn’t make it through the legislative process was SB 731, The Kenneth Ross Jr. Police Decertification Act of 2020, by state Sen. Steven Bradford, D-Gardena. The bill would have created a statewide process to revoke the certification of a peace officer following conviction of certain serious crimes or termination for cause due to misconduct. It also contained provisions to prevent law enforcement abuses and other civil rights violations.

Forty-five states already have the power to decertify police who commit serious misconduct or break the law.

The bill was not brought up for a vote in the Assembly before the legislative deadline set by the California Constitution.

Expressing deep disappointment that the Assembly didn’t debate and vote on the bill, Bradford said, “To ignore the thousands of voices calling for real police reform is insulting. Today Californians were once again let down by those who were meant to represent them.”

Bradford and state Senate President Pro Tem Toni Atkins, D-San Diego, issued a joint statement pledging that in the 2121 legislative session they would continue pursuing legislation to restrict officers from returning to duty after being fired or disciplined for serious misconduct.

Meeting similar fates were SB 776 by state Sen. Nancy Skinner, D-Berkeley, which would have opened more police records to public scrutiny;  and AB 66 by Assemblymember Lorena Gonzalez, D-San Diego, to ban the use of rubber bullets, teargas, and projectiles at peaceful protests.

Observers pointed out that all three measures, as well as some that did pass, had encountered significant resistance from law enforcement agencies, adding to the extreme scheduling pressures COVID-19 had imposed on the legislative process’ final phase.

Assemblymember Chris Holden, D-Pasadena, credited that resistance with stalling his AB 1022, to clarify how and when police officers must intervene when a fellow officer is using excessive force, during committee hearings earlier in the session.

The legislators whose bills did not pass all said they are determined to renew their efforts next year.