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New California Law Limits Police Use-of-Force to When 'Necessary'

Drawing applause from civil liberties organizations and activists, California Gov. Gavin Newsom signed legislation Monday that raises the standard for when police can use deadly force.

By Teri Figueroa

Drawing applause from civil liberties organizations and activists, California Gov. Gavin Newsom signed legislation Monday that raises the standard for when police can use deadly force.

AB 392, authored by Assemblywoman Shirley Weber, a San Diego Democrat, allows law enforcement officers to use deadly force only when "necessary," when their life or the lives of others are in imminent danger and when there is no other alternative to de-escalate the situation, such as using non-lethal methods.

That's a change from the current standard, which allowed using deadly force when an officer has a "reasonable" fear of imminent harm.

The change, which goes into effect Jan. 1, gives California one of the highest use-of-force standards in the nation.

"We are doing something today that stretches the boundaries of possibility, and sends a message to people all across the country that they can do more and they can do better to meet this moment in their respective states," Newsom said during a signing ceremony.

Weber issued a statement Monday saying that the new law takes "the first step toward changing how policing is conducted in California."

"The primary driver for enforcing public safety is now valuing and preserving human life," Weber said. "Policy, training and tactics will change statewide to reflect this."

Weber's statement also noted that the legislation "owes much to the energy and devotion of the families who have lost loved ones. They have translated their grief into positive action that will now save lives."

The signing ceremony in Sacramento included relatives of those who had been fatally shot during encounters with law enforcement. The bill was born of concerns over fatal police shootings, particularly of unarmed black men, among them 22-year-old Stephon Clark, shot to death last year by Sacramento police after a chase that ended in his grandmother's backyard.

The officers have said they believed Clark had a gun. They learned later he was holding a cellphone.

Locally, the fatal shooting of Alfred Olango, a black Ugandan immigrant, by an El Cajon police officer in 2016 prompted weeks of protests from members of the community and several lawsuits.

In July, a civil jury found the officer was not negligent in the shooting.

The Los Angeles Times reported that Weber said the new law could be a model for other states. "This will make a difference not only in California but we know it will make a difference around the world," she said.

State Senate President pro Tempore Toni Atkins, D-San Diego, told the crowd that "California is on the right side of history."

The law, Atkins also said, "is not a magic fix for the racial tensions that are endemic in our country, but it does show that California is taking action."

The American Civil Liberties Union of California and several other organizations issued a statement hailing the legislation as historic, saying it increases accountability and will set a national precedent. They noted that the change in the law makes California the only state to combine the "necessary" standard with a requirement that courts consider an officer's conduct leading up to a use of deadly force when determining whether the officer's actions were justified.

In the statement, the ACLU and other groups stressed a belief that establishing the "necessary" standard would reduce the number of use-of-force incidents in California.

California has one of the highest rates of police shootings in the country, according to advocacy group Mapping Police Violence, which maintains a database of killings by police. A San Diego County District Attorney's Office study of shootings involving law enforcement in the county over the past 25 years showed that 451 individuals were shot in 439 incidents.

Initially, law enforcement groups were against the bill, but dropped their opposition after changes were made to its language.

On Monday, Jack Schaeffer, president of the San Diego Police Officers Association, said the final legislation came as the result of "a compromise that works for everybody."

Schaeffer said the new law puts policing agencies across the state "under the same rules." He said it will probably mean a few adjustments but not big changes for San Diego police officers.

"Ultimately, I think we have been ahead of the curve on policies for quite some time," he said.

A statement issued Monday by three law enforcement groups, including the California Police Chiefs Association, spoke of the new legislation coupled with a second bill -- Senate Bill 230 -- as a "landmark legislative package" that "represents the most comprehensive use of force policy in the nation."

"Together, AB 392 and SB 230 will modernize our state's policies on the use of force, implementing the very best practices gathered from across our nation," Ron Lawrence, President of the California Police Chiefs Association, said in the statement.

SB 230, which addresses use-of-force training and policies, remains in an Assembly committee.

(c)2019 The San Diego Union-Tribune

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