OC Assembly Members Help Advance Compromised Police Use-of-Force Bill

A woman stands down against police during the Anaheim Riots in 2012

Advocates for Assembly Bill 392 faced a tough time gaining support from Orange County assembly members when preaching its virtues. The police use-of-force bill  sought to change the standard for deadly force from “reasonable” to “necessary.” But when AB 392 came to a pivotal vote in the state assembly on Wednesday, it found bipartisan support in passing 68-0, including supportive nods from all of OC’s representatives from Republican Tyler Diep to Democrat Cottie Petrie-Norris.

“I’m very surprised because our legislators here in OC were definitely not in favor of it,” says Theresa Smith, an AB 392 advocate whose son was killed by Anaheim police in 2009. “After doing this for 10 years, it is a very small step in a forward direction in holding police accountable.”

Like Smith, family members of loved ones lost to police violence traveled from all over the state to Sacramento to share their stories with legislators and advocate for the bill’s passage. A coalition of organizations, from the American Civil Liberties Union to Black Lives Matter, formed to advance the cause.

By the time AB 392 came to a vote, it read a bit different.  Last week, Assemblywoman Shirley Weber (D-San Diego) compromised on several amendments. As originally written, the legislation held that deadly force could only be used in incidents where there was no reasonable alternative. It also sought to strengthen the hand of prosecutors across the state, especially in cases where an officer’s criminally negligent actions caused them to use deadly force.

But now the definition of “necessary” is gone.  So, too, are provisions regarding alternatives to deadly force and consequences for criminal negligence. The bill allows for deadly force in cases where, “the officer reasonably believes, based on the totality of the circumstances, that deadly force is necessary to defend against an imminent threat of death or serious bodily injury to the officer or to another person.”

The changes won the support of Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon (D-Lakewood), Senate leader Toni Atkins (D-San Diego) and Governor Gavin Newsom. Police associations dropped their opposition to the bill, but are falling short of supporting it.

“It’s not everything we wanted, but there’s never been a law like this before,” says Smith. “Law enforcement didn’t oppose it, but they definitely didn’t like it.”

As of press time, none of the seven OC assembly members have issued any press statements regarding their vote this week. Following Wednesday’s vote, the legislation now heads to the State Senate for approval.

“The bill that passed the assembly is a strong bill that moves California from having one of the most permissive laws regarding lethal force to among the strongest in the country,” says Peter Bibring, an ACLU of Southern California staff attorney and director of police practices.”The bill changes the current vague standard to requiring only when necessary. That change has always been at the heart of this bill.”

Bibring, who helped write the bill, stresses that district attorneys and other decision makers will have to take the new “necessary” standard together with evaluating the “totality of the circumstances” in a deadly encounter, especially the conduct of officers.

Not everyone from the advocacy side is pleased by the changes. Alongside Silicon Valley de-bug,  Black Lives Matter is no longer co-sponsoring the bill.

“Black Lives Matters invested a whole lot of time, energy and resources in trying to get AB 392 passed because, in its original form, we felt like it was really meaningful legislation,” says Dr. Melina Abdullah, a Black Lives Matter chapter leader in Los Angeles and a Pan-African Studies professor at Cal State LA. “The police unions have way too much power in this state and in this country. If this is an amended bill that they can live with, then it’s not the kind of meaningful legislation that we want to get behind.”

According to Abdullah, Black Lives Matter could’ve lived with the amendment stripping the definition of “necessary” if it meant assuring the bill’s passage. But then other changes kept coming to key provisions of the legislation, compromises that the activist leader felt watered it down too much.

The breaking point for the grassroots group came when Senate Bill 230, once a competing piece of legislation aimed at allocating more money for training, came back around to be joined at the hip of AB 392.

“SB 230 was a bill that we vigorously opposed,” says Abdullah. “Now with them being presented as companion bills, that left Black Lives Matter with no choice. When we think about the killing of the people at the hands of police, it just seems illogical to give police more money to not kill us.”

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