The fatal March 18 shooting of an unarmed 22-year-old African-American man in the backyard of his grandparents’ home in Sacramento raised anew painful questions about U.S. law enforcement’s troubling history of disproportionate use of lethal force against black men. Stephon Clark’s death and the issues it evokes demand thoughtful debate.
That is why Assembly members Shirley Weber, D-San Diego, and Kevin McCarty, D-Sacramento, deserve credit for introducing Assembly Bill 931. Presently, fatal shootings are considered justified if an officer had a “reasonable fear” for his or her safety, a standard that has been interpreted so loosely that police killings rarely lead to criminal prosecutions.
The Police Accountability and Community Protection Act would raise the standard under which officers could use deadly force, allowing it only when nonlethal approaches — such as using verbal warnings or persuasion — appear insufficient to prevent imminent death or bodily injury.
“Existing use-of-force laws have made an encounter with law enforcement — no matter how ordinary and no matter whether an individual is unarmed or even cooperative — into one that ends in the death of a civilian,” Weber said in a statement.
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Unfortunately, this is an issue that like gun control itself quickly boils down to binary either-or arguments. The largest law enforcement organization in the state — the Peace Officers Research Association of California — immediately denounced the bill as a “dangerous rush to judgment.” Meanwhile, a nurse fired after suggesting on Facebook that Clark “deserved” to die for his alleged suspicious behavior has raised $25,000 for her “trying time.”
Californians deserve a smarter discussion. The starting point shouldn’t be the inflammatory argument that this issue pivots on whether the public supports police. It should be public safety. Some state lawmakers and the ACLU cite a 2016 study of 91 U.S. law enforcement departments that showed that those that had a higher standard for allowing the use of lethal force killed fewer suspects and had fewer officers killed while on duty. There’s also evidence that better training can reduce fatal police shootings. The Seattle Police Department, for example, saw a dramatic drop in such incidents after it began using crisis intervention training that emphasized de-escalating dangerous situations.
Reform measures like Weber’s that might foster greater accountability and fairer treatment face an uphill battle unless the unions of police and sheriff’s deputies — which wield a lot of power in local and state politics — are willing to accept change. These unions are right to talk about how difficult it will always be to make split-second life-or-death decisions. But too often, this can mean that any criticism of such decisions is considered out of bounds.
Weber has battled entrenched interests before. Her years-long fight with teachers unions over education reform is another example of the daughter of African-American sharecroppers from Hope, Arkansas, taking on the establishment. She may be short on policy victories, but when it comes to expecting accountability from teachers, schools, police officers and law enforcement agencies, the arc of the moral universe is long and bends toward justice.