Three months after the police killing of George Floyd ignited national outrage and filled California streets with protesters, the Legislature is in the final hours of a session that is poised to deliver a much more modest law enforcement reform agenda than many expected.
More than a dozen bills regarding police accountability and oversight were introduced in the weeks after Floyd, a black man, was killed by a Minneapolis police officer who placed his knee on Floyd’s neck in May.
But weeks later, legislators are lukewarm on passing some of those reforms. Backers blame several factors, from external sources — a shortened session due to the coronavirus and the urgency of focusing on wildfires — to fierce opposition from law enforcement unions, which have long been major power players in Sacramento.
Some of the measures that failed to advance include a proposed law to require fellow officers to intervene if they witnessed excessive force, a plan to streamline oversight boards of sheriff’s departments and an attempt to further constrict how police use deadly force.
The showing underscores the challenges of sweeping police reform even in a liberal state like California, where polls show wide support for some of the measures.
“Many times you have folks in our world, elected officials, who are there for the photo-op, the press conference, but it when it comes to standing up and doing the real thing, they fade to the shadows,” said state Sen. Steven Bradford (D-Gardena) author of the most controversial remaining measure that would strip bad officers of their badges. “They run from police when it comes to standing up to them. This is what has these folks in fear, the threat of the union coming after them.”
Along with Bradford’s proposal, legislators may still consider bills that would further expand what police records are made public, place restrictions on when and how rubber bullets and tear gas are used on protesters, and ban chokeholds and carotid restraints.
Legislators have until Monday night to vote on remaining bills, and Gov. Gavin Newsom must sign those sent to him by the end of September.
Across California, the appetite for reform remains strong though protests have faded. In a recent poll by UC Berkeley’s Institute of Governmental Studies, 80% of respondents favored creating laws that would make it easier to prosecute police officers who use excessive force, 78% favored banning chokeholds and 70% favored giving civilians the right to sue officers for misconduct and excessive force.
But with attention focused on the state’s myriad other troubles, “the moment is beginning to close,” said Melina Abdullah, head of Black Lives Matter Los Angeles, which sponsored the Bradford bill. She believes legislators used the abbreviated session as “an excuse” to avoid crossing unions.
Those in law enforcement say their opposition isn’t to reform, but to the rushed process that they believe has led to proposals that are faulty and problematic. They point out that many bills never had the public discussions and floor debates that would happen in a normal session, and contend they were not fully vetted even by their authors.
“Even under the best circumstances, trying to get something done in six weeks is very tough in the Legislature,” said Brian Marvel, head of the statewide Police Officers Research Assn. of California. “You can’t even have sit-down conversations.”
Marvel said that he views the successful recent push back on current measures as “bittersweet” because he expects them to come up again next session. Marvel and others in law enforcement said they still see strong desire at the Capitol for reform. But he added that he is hopeful a more normal session would lead to a better process.
“I know that on the one hand we’ve had a little bit of success here on the back end of 2020, but we know we have a lot of work coming in 2021,” he said.
Bradford’s bill, which squeaked forward Wednesday when it cleared a key Assembly committee, is at the heart of the debate over whether an imperfect change is better than none.
Bradford named the bill after Kenneth Ross, Jr., a 25-year-old mentally ill man who was shot by a Gardena police officer who had previously been involved in three other shootings while working at another department. Though Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. Jackie Lacey found the shooting justified, video footage calls into question official details. The family has filed a civil suit. Bradford, who grew up near the park where the incident occurred and still lives nearby, said the death was “personal to me” though he did not know Ross.
Bradford’s bill, SB 731, would create a process that would require all officers in the state to be certified by the Commission on Peace Officer Standards and Training, which could also revoke that certification for violations of law. The bill would also curtail police officers’ immunity from being financially liable if they are sued for their actions on the job. Bradford acknowledged during Tuesday’s hearing that the bill had flaws, and fielded questions from fellow Democrats on issues around due process and labor rights.
Marvel said his organization, along with most law enforcement, supports a de-certification process but thinks Bradford’s bill goes too far in proposing a powerful civilian panel that includes families of victims of police violence and community organizations. It also leaves potential conflicts between local entities and the new state structure, and could conflict with contractual provisions and, with the qualified immunity sections, federal rules, some in law enforcement contend.
“During the current moment in time in our nation’s history, I think they are trying to go for a grand slam here, which is unfortunate,” he said.
But the committee passed the bill for a possible floor vote Monday, with Assemblywoman Eloise Gomez Reyes (D-Grand Terrace) echoing her colleagues when she said, “It’s clear that there will be some unintended consequences,” from the current wording, but the Legislature could plan on “future legislation to take care of those things.”
That angered Republican Assemblyman James Gallagher (R-Yuba City), who said he supported a de-certification process but added later, “Seriously, this is what we are going to accept as good policy making?”
The bill’s successful journey forward highlights that a core of reform-minded Democrats still hold enough sway to push the remaining legislation, if only to a full vote. But the fate of reform will largely be determined over the weekend, when, though deadlines for change will expire Friday, backroom negotiations will likely center on whether there is a way to assuage law enforcement’s concerns enough to make an aye vote Monday worth the risk — especially in a moment when punting to next year may go unnoticed.
Some activists see a flow of power back toward police unions after an unusual year in 2019 when protests around the shooting of another black man, Stephon Clark, by Sacramento police upended years of police influence at the state Capitol and led to the passage of a new standard for when California police can kill. Many hoped the Floyd killing would continue that shift, but instead say police unions have regained their footing.
“We’ve always seen the union exerting itself whenever it came to that wall being chipped at,” Cephus Johnson, a criminal justice reform advocate whose nephew, Oscar Grant, was killed by transit police in the Bay Area in 2008. “Maybe last year they were caught by surprise. But last year, we seemed to have a lot more strength.”
“I am not sure what kind of hit we are going to take,” he added. “I am sure it’s going to be an even bigger fight.”
Staff writer Kevin Rector contributed to this report.