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In the weeks since George Floyd’s death at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer, demands for reform have caught fire at every level of government.
The city of San Diego moved to create a citywide Office of Race and Equity (but declined to cut the police department’s budget, and instead increased it). The San Diego district attorney has unveiled reform plans as well.
State lawmakers and statewide officeholders are in the mix, too. Some have proposed specific bills to rein in police use of force; others are ideas that would require further action from policymakers.
The attorney general’s office, the top law enforcement arm for the state, had been remarkably quiet about police reforms until this week. (Disclosure: My husband works for the California Department of Justice.)
Attorney General Xavier Beccera unveiled a list of reform proposals that draw from recommendations his office previously made to the Sacramento Police Department. Becerra told NPR he hopes that individual agencies adopt the proposals, or that the state Legislature enacts them.
Becerra’s recommendations largely align with other reforms being proposed at the local and state levels across the country, and at the national level with proposals in Congress: more training on bias and de-escalation, limiting pepper spray in juvenile facilities and rubber bullets and other projectiles, shifting away from using police officers as first responders to incidents involving homelessness or mental health crises.
One of Becerra’s recommendations, though, stood out: It says he would be willing to sponsor legislation that would “decertify peace officers for serious misconduct, including provisions requiring law enforcement agencies to complete investigations even after a peace officer leaves a department.”
In November, Voice of San Diego joined with news organizations across the state to create a comprehensive database of California police officers who’ve been convicted of crimes. As our expansive investigation found, “the Golden State is one of only five in the country that doesn’t ‘decertify’ officers for misconduct – or effectively strip them of a license to work in law enforcement. That means virtually all hiring and firing decisions are up to local chiefs and sheriffs.”
Interestingly, though Becerra’s recommendations include enhancing the Justice Department’s “capacity to review and proactively help law enforcement agencies across the state reform their policies and practices,” they don’t include any expanded role in investigating police use of force or misconduct accusations, which are typically investigated by the officer’s own department.
Governing magazine this week noted that state attorneys general could be an underutilized resource when it comes to investigating police abuse: “A simple alternative to relying on the U.S. Department of Justice to investigate police abuse from coast to coast, however, was provided by Walker and Macdonald a decade ago in the George Mason University Civil Rights Law Journal: States should authorize their attorneys general to do the work we’ve pawned off to the feds. Not only are state AGs more independent from governors than DOJ lawyers are from presidents, but most of them are accountable at the ballot box.”
The San Diego Police Department announced it would ban the carotid restraint, a form of chokehold, in the wake of Floyd’s death, after having resisted calls to do so for years. Law enforcement agencies across San Diego County followed suit.
State lawmakers then announced an effort to ban the method statewide. Assemblyman Todd Gloria is a co-author of the bill, AB 1196.
Banning the restraint won’t necessarily be the end of the story, however. An NPR investigation this week found that existing bans on chokeholds at some of the nation’s largest police departments were “largely ineffective and subject to lax enforcement.”
The new language for the bill was just published on Thursday, and says it “would prohibit a law enforcement agency from authorizing the use of a carotid restraint or a choke hold.”
The bill includes an urgency clause, meaning that if it passes and is ultimately signed by the governor (who’s already signaled his support for a ban), it would go into effect immediately.
Reining in Rubber Bullets
One hallmark of recent police protests in La Mesa and beyond has been police use of so-called non-lethal projectiles against demonstrators. One woman injured by a police projectile in La Mesa was placed in a medically induced coma.
Soon after, Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez announced a measure intended to standardize procedures guiding the deployment of non-lethal projectiles and rein in their use.
Though the deadline to introduce new bills passed long before the idea for this measure surfaced, the bill exists thanks to the so-called gut and amend process, in which a bill’s language is scrapped and replaced with something totally different.
Thus, AB 66, which previously addressed taxation, now addresses rubber bullets. For now, the bill is filled only with placeholder text. The actual bill language should be published by next week, said Sami Gallegos, a spokeswoman for Gonzalez.
Removing Police Union Support From Prosecutor Races
Three Bay Area district attorneys, and one former San Francisco DA, have called on the State Bar of California to create a rule preventing elected prosecutors from seeking an endorsement or financial support from law enforcement unions.
“Receiving an endorsement and campaign contributions from an entity that finances opposing counsel creates, at a minimum, the appearance of a conflict of interest for elected prosecutors,” they wrote in a letter. “District Attorneys will undoubtedly review use of force incidents involving their members. When they do, the financial and political support of these unions should not be allowed to influence that decision making.
San Diego City Attorney Mara Elliott and District Attorney Summer Stephan, for example, have both received the endorsement of the San Diego Police Officers Association.
– Sara Libby
Agencies Are Updating Policies, Training to Comply With New Use-of-Force Standards
It’s been nearly one year since the passage of Assemblywoman Shirley Weber’s AB 392, a major statewide reform that changed the legal standards guiding police use of deadly force. It was the first substantial alteration to the statute in a century.
A companion bill, SB 230, required that by 2021, police agencies throughout the state reflect those changes in their policies and make the policies publicly accessible.
A VOSD review of those documents suggests that all the police agencies in San Diego County are complying with the law ahead well ahead of the deadline. Most lifted the language directly from Weber’s bill, instructing officers that it is reasonable to use deadly force “to defend against an imminent threat of death or serious bodily injury to the officer or another person.”
This is what’s known as “objectively reasonable” force in the eyes of the law.
The San Diego County Sheriff’s Department, which employs approximately 4,000 people — sworn personnel and support staff — used slightly different phrasing. The Sheriff’s policy instructs deputies that it is reasonable to use deadly force “in defense of any person in immediate danger of death, or the threat of serious physical injury.”
The major difference here is that state law says “imminent threat” and the sheriff says “immediate danger.” Joe Kocurek, a spokesman for Weber, said the variation is not a concern, so long as the Sheriff’s definition of “immediate” meets the state’s definition of “imminent.”
Lt. Ricardo Lopez, a Sheriff’s Department spokesman, said in an email that he’s confident they’re the same.
The Sheriff’s policy was last reviewed in 2015, so it actually predates AB 392 by four years.
“Being objectively reasonable was already in our policy and procedures,” Lopez said.
New Training Delayed by Coronavirus
AB 392’s changes have legal consequences. But the words don’t mean all that much unless the sworn officers are aware of them and absorb them into their daily interactions with the public.
That’s why so much of the discussion around use of force in Sacramento last year revolved around the importance of training. SB 230 required that the state commission responsible for California’s minimum police standards roll new courses to its mandatory training sessions totaling 24 hours, which are completed by sworn officers every two years.
Specifically, SB 230 highlighted de-escalation and interpersonal communication, “including tactical methods that use time, distance, cover and concealment, to avoid escalating situations that lead to violence.” It also cited implicit and explicit bias and cultural competency.
Separate from those ongoing courses, the San Diego County district attorney’s office has been hosting its own eight-hour training session in partnership with the county’s psychiatric emergency response team.
“We are currently enhancing the de-escalation training in the areas of implicit and explicit bias and cultural competency,” wrote Steve Walker, a spokesman for the DA’s Office, in an email.
The DA’s training mirrors much of what’s in SB 230. Walker said instructors emphasize reverence for human life and the dignity and liberty of all persons. They also teach communication that’s intended to avoid escalated tensions and violence, and use simulations and role play.
Lt. Shawn Takeuchi, a spokesman for SDPD, which helped develop the local courses, said they built off the curriculum laid out by the state. The instructions got rolling in January but were put temporarily on hold in March because of the pandemic.
Instructors are now developing virtual and advanced courses. “All agencies within San Diego County have participated in the training and will continue to participate in the future,” Walker said.
In addition to that, some agencies have also begun providing in-house legal updates to their officers to comply in part with AB 392.
Chula Vista police Capt. Phil Collum told me that only “small number of personnel” in his city had “yet to complete it” because of the pandemic.
– Jesse Marx
School Reopening Hearing Provides Little Clarity
A wide range of education leaders spoke at a hearing of the Assembly Education Committee on Tuesday, including the state Board of Education president and a local superintendent.
So far, only one thing about schools in the fall appears to be clear: Each district will have wide-ranging discretion to implement widely differing back-to-school plans.
Katie McNamara, superintendent of South Bay Union, shared two insights, neither reassuring.
First, the state needs to clarify its guidance on masks, she said. Some agencies say it must happen, others seem to suggest it is optional, she said. State Superintendent Tony Thurmond said he is proving “the strongest of recommendations” for districts to mandate mask wearing at all times. McNamara seemed to be looking for something more concrete.
Her second insight was worse: “I’m confident I will be making cuts to personnel in our future board meetings,” she said. South Bay Union was already having difficulty with its finances. Now with the pandemic bearing down, she fully expects layoffs, she said.
State board president Linda Darling-Hammond, who is also a well-respected education researcher, shared one piece of information that stuck out.
She said districts should plan to do formative assessments that will “evaluate what students know, remember and are ready to learn next.”
Here’s why internal assessments (as opposed to standardized tests) could be important: experts presume that many vulnerable students have slipped further behind during the pandemic. Assessing them as soon as they come back to school could help teachers understand who is furthest behind.
Here’s the catch: San Diego Unified officials said this week that they have no intention of doing formative assessments. An official said the district wants to teachers to “anticipate” the places where students might be behind.
– Will Huntsberry
Golden State News
- Coronavirus hospitalizations statewide are trending in a disturbing direction. (CalMatters)
- California lawmakers passed a plan to mail every California voter a ballot for the November election, and it got a surprising amount of Republican support. (Politico)
- “California’s aging oilfields require ever more energy-intensive drilling methods, spurring environmental concerns and boosting fuel prices under a decade-old state program.” (Bloomberg)
- State lawmakers announced a statue of Christopher Columbus in the state Capitol will be removed. (CNN)