California lawmakers have gotten the message sent by activists, family and friends of Stephon Clark during the last few weeks: stop police officers’ use of deadly force against people of color.
Legislators planned to introduce a bill Tuesday that restricts the state’s standard definition for lethal force use, The Sacramento Bee reported. Cops would only be allowed to use force when “necessary,” meaning there are no other alternatives that the officer can weigh during an encounter with a suspect. This also means that officers may be punished more in cases where their own actions caused the use of deadly force.
The bill, tightening the previous U.S. Supreme Court precedent that deadly force can be used if a “reasonable” officer would have acted the same in a similar situation, would also seek to stop reinforcing an irrational fear that can push officers to act abruptly without de-escalation. Many officers who have been acquitted after fatally shooting people of color have relied on defenses that they felt fear and were in danger. The arguments usually don’t take into account any implicit racial biases or need to consider alternatives other than brute force — a pattern that must be changed.
“We want to put it in their mind that there are other options that they should utilize prior to that, that using deadly force is an extreme option,” Assemblywoman Shirley Weber, a San Diego Democrat who is carrying the bill, said. “That’s force you can’t bring back.
The death of 22-year-old Clark, who was fatally shot in his grandmother’s backyard after only holding a cellphone in Sacramento last month, was preventable, Weber said. Folks are “tired” and there’s a hope that “everybody comes together,” she added.
California police would most likely have to confront a turbulent history with deadly force. Officers use lethal options at a higher rate than other states, Legislative advocate Lizzie Buchen noted. Bakersfield, Stockton, Long Beach, Santa Ana and San Bernardino are among the top fifteen in the country for killings per capita.
Juries also tend to give leeway to officers in lethal force cases, something that must also be challenged for this bill to have a real fighting chance to change things. The bill should also expand on what it defines as “necessary” use of force, but at least, it will make officers consider how their actions lead to deadly situations, William Terrill, a professor in the School of Criminology & Criminal Justice at Arizona State University whose research focuses on policing, said to the Sacramento Bee.
With past fatal police shootings alerting people of color about dangerous encounters with cops, the bill must take into account the public’s thoughts and concerns as well. How lawmakers vote on the bill will indicate what next needs to be done.