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California lawmakers seek to limit police ability to use deadly force

A Black Lives Matter protester holds a sign in front of a Sacramento police officer during a demonstration on March 22 in Sacramento, California. Some California lawmakers are drafting legislation to place more restrictions on when police officers can open fire. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Some California lawmakers are drafting legislation to place more restrictions on when police officers can open fire, in response to the shooting death of Stephon Clark by Sacramento officers, according to The Associated Press.

What is the proposal?

Assemblyman Kevin McCarty and Assemblywoman Shirley Weber are co-authoring a bill to change the standard from “reasonable force” to “necessary force” for police when deciding how to respond.

Under current law, officers have the discretion to respond with deadly force if they reasonably believe there is a threat to their safety, even if it turns out that threat didn’t exist.

From the California Penal Code:

"Any peace officer who has reasonable cause to believe that the person to be arrested has committed a public offense may use reasonable force to effect the arrest, to prevent escape or to overcome resistance."

"A peace officer who makes or attempts to make an arrest need not retreat or desist from his efforts by reason of the resistance or threatened resistance of the person being arrested;  nor shall such officer be deemed an aggressor or lose his right to self-defense by the use of reasonable force to effect the arrest or to prevent escape or to overcome resistance." -PEN § 835a

From Nolo:

“The U.S. Supreme Court established that a police officer who has probable cause to believe a suspect poses a threat of serious harm to the officer or others may use deadly force to prevent escape (Tennessee v. Garner, 471 U.S. 1 (1985).)

That appeared to be the case in the Clark shooting on March 18, when cops opened fire on Clark after being told he had a gun. Clark was actually unarmed, with only a cellphone in his possession.

The proposed new standard would only allow officers to shoot if “there were no other reasonable alternatives to the use of deadly force,” an American Civil Liberties Union advocate told the AP.

That standard could cause officers in situations similar to the Clark incident to fall back and avoid confrontation until backup arrives, attempt de-escalation techniques, or attempt to confront a suspect with non-lethal weapons instead of shooting their guns.

Why are they proposing this?

McCarty, Weber and California social justice advocates believe current laws give police too much discretion to use lethal force, and make it nearly impossible to charge them with a crime when they kill someone.

The bill’s authors say of the 162 people fatally shot by police officers in California in 2017, only half of them were armed with guns. According to the ACLU, California would be the first state to enact a "necessary force" law.


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