Photo by Cindy Yamanaka, The Press-Enterprise

Two competing bills in the Legislature are seeking to raise the standards for police recruitment and hiring.

Both bills are driven by the belief that more education makes for better police officers. But they differ in whether higher education should merely be incentivized or an actual requirement. One is backed by police unions and wouldn’t impose any hard education requirements; the other would require officers to either be 25 or have a college degree.

Sen. Anthony Portantino’s new bill, SB 387, has the backing of the Police Officers Research Association, and would incentivize police officers to pursue higher education – but would not require it. Portantino’s bill would add academic coursework to training requirements and help cover the costs of a college degree for current and prospective officers.

A press release from Portantino’s office said the goal of the bill is to rebuild trust between law enforcement and the public: “Studies and research from public safety experts throughout the country consistently show that increased education and training can help officers to approach each interaction in a way that is proven to increase positive public safety outcomes in our communities.”

Assemblyman Reggie Jones-Sawyer, author of AB 89, agrees with that goal.

But Jones-Sawyer, who last year was literally “targeted” by a police union in an ad that merged his face with a bull’s eye, differs with Portantino and PORAC when it comes to whether tougher hiring requirements will harm recruiting efforts.

“I think that’s a little racist and demeaning because their problem is not getting enough people coming in, it’s how they’re recruiting. You’re not going to historically black colleges, for example, to recruit. Every other police organization that really cares about having a diverse group is actually doing it,” said Jones-Sawyer, who chairs the Assembly’s public safety committee.

Jones-Sawyer noted that Portantino is chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee, which doles out funding, and therefore is well situated to help ensure goals like providing scholarships or paying down officers’ education debt gets accomplished.

Both lawmakers have expressed a desire to improve the public’s perception of police officers.

“Disrespect toward law enforcement has become a cultural norm nationwide — making it even more difficult to recruit qualified candidates into the field,” the fact sheet for SB 387 argues.

“We need to bring in more people that will embrace the police renaissance,” Jones-Sawyer said. “My belief is that if we raise the standards of getting in, we’re going to have a better product going out.”

Then There’s Training …

Does more training mean better policing? That’s the question California’s Little Hoover Commission seeks to answer. On Thursday, the oversight agency, which evaluates state government operations and makes recommendations for improvement, held the first in a series of three hearings focused on law enforcement training.

Former state Assemblyman Pedro Nava, who chairs the commission, opened the hearing by crediting state lawmakers for making California a leader in police reform (a view that’s not exactly shared by everyone).

But when it comes to law enforcement training, “little evidence is available to show what actually works and what doesn’t,” Nava said.

Three panelists provided testimony and took questions from commissioners who echoed Nava’s concern: Who ensures that the training curriculum is evidence-based? What’s the best way to evaluate training effectiveness? If there’s a contested shooting, is it possible to find out exactly what training that officer went through?

Manny Alvarez, the executive director of California’s Commission on Peace Officer Standards and Training, which sets the minimum requirements for a person to be a certified peace officer, agreed that an independent review was warranted.

“A lot of the tactics questions are left to individual departments,” he said. “There’s a lot of debate in the profession.”

Alvarez said focus should be on matching training to experience; legislative mandates often focus on academy training, but teaching recruits things they might not use for two or three years isn’t always the best approach.

“If you teach a complicated topic or something they’re not going to use, it’s wasted,” Alvarez said. “It would be better to provide that training [later on] when they’re ready to have it.”

Joseph Cortez, a lieutenant with the Santa Monica Police Department and associate professor of criminal justice at USC, agreed that the state’s police-training curriculum could use a thorough review. He encouraged the commission to look into a broader definition of police training that extends beyond law-enforcement settings. Cortez said he’d like to see more opportunities for officers to pursue a college education and advanced degrees.

“Training shouldn’t be the be all, end all,” he said. “I’m not saying education gets everything perfect; I’m saying it sparks the conversation with members of the public who are not police personnel.”

Hueso Tries Again on Cannabis Access Bill

State Sen. Ben Hueso has reintroduced a bill that would allow terminally ill patients access to non-smokeable forms of cannabis in hospitals. And once again, he’s named it Ryan’s Law after a 41-year-old San Diegan who was diagnosed with stage 4 pancreatic cancer and spent his remaining days in Washington, where he’d found a health care facility willing to accommodate his preferred method of pain management.

A similar attempt by Hueso failed in 2019. At the time, Gov. Gavin Newsom said he begrudgingly vetoed the bill because it would create a conflict for hospitals that receive federal reimbursement for the services they provide.

“It is inconceivable that the federal government continues to regard cannabis as having no medicinal value,” he wrote. “The federal government’s ludicrous stance puts patients and those who care for them in an unconscionable position.”

So what’s changed? Officially, the feds still consider the devil’s weed a dangerous drug, but there’s been a softening of attitudes. Three notable Democrats in the U.S. Senate issued a joint statement on Feb. 1 saying they would work together to advance comprehensive cannabis reform in the current Congress.

Newsom has also signaled since the start of the pandemic that he’s more amenable to pot and less concerned with the contradictions of state and federal governments. He signed a number of bills late last year that were well received by the industry, including one that raised the THC variance on edibles and another that establishes a cannabis banking system in the Golden State.

Hell, California’s top public health officer followed up on the governor’s stay-at-home order in March by clarifying that cannabis retail workers were essential.

Hueso has plenty of support from lawmakers — Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez is a co-author of SB 311 — but the support of health care facilities will also help to push the bill through again. The last time around, the California Hospital Association dropped its opposition in exchange for a “safe harbor” provision that gave health care workers a loophole if the feds started cracking down. The current version of Hueso’s bill includes that provision as well.

Jesse Marx

Golden State News

Sara Libby was VOSD’s managing editor until 2021. She oversaw VOSD’s newsroom and content.

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