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Police reforms rivaled the COVID-19 response last year in terms of the Legislature’s highest priorities. Yet many of them failed, even amid intense calls for change. Here’s where three big reform measures currently stand.
Police reforms rivaled the COVID-19 response last year in terms of the Legislature’s highest priorities. Yet many of them failed, even amid intense calls for change.
Two of the measures I’m watching closely are revived versions of bills that failed to get across the finish line last year. Law enforcement groups have expressed opposition to all three.
Here’s a status update before the Legislature heads into a recess.
AB 48: Limiting Police Projectiles
Police across the country responded to massive demonstrations in the wake of George Floyd’s death by deploying so-called “less-lethal” projectiles like rubber bullets and tear gas, often with devastating impacts.
USA Today and Kaiser Health News reported last year: “At least 60 protesters sustained serious head injuries, including a broken jaw, traumatic brain injuries and blindness, based on news reports, interviews with victims and witnesses and a list compiled by Scott Reynhout, a Los Angeles researcher.”
A protestor in La Mesa was placed in a medically induced coma and sustained severe injuries as a result of a bean bag round fired at her face. She is suing the city. In February, the La Mesa Police Department announced the officer who fired the round would not be disciplined.
That is the backdrop of AB 48, a version of which was introduced by Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez last year following the injuries to demonstrators.
The bill largely bans the use of police kinetic projectiles and chemical agents to disperse protests. It would allow the use of tear gas, but only at the direction of the commanding officer at the scene. It also requires agencies to report their uses of force to the Department of Justice monthly.
San Diego Police Officers Association President Jack Schaeffer last year put the blame on protestors in explaining his opposition to the measure: “A lot of these incidents that I’m hearing about that they’re calling ‘peaceful protests’ weren’t exactly peaceful protests,” he told KUSI. “We need to have some way to cause people to disperse.”
A spokesman for Gonzalez said he doesn’t expect the bill to undergo any significant changes in order to win over law enforcement groups. More than a dozen police unions statewide oppose the bill.
“I don’t anticipate us taking any amendments. Right now the bill is what it is,” said spokesman Mike Blount.
The bill passed the Senate public safety committee last week and is next headed to the Senate appropriations committee. It’s gotten this far before – last year it failed to advance out of the full Senate.
AB 89: New Police Hiring Standards
Many recent police accountability efforts deal with handling potentially deadly encounters between police and the public – either by changing the standards for police use of force, or how to handle them once they’ve already used force.
But AB 89 deals with the other end of the spectrum: before an officer is even hired.
In broad terms, it aims to ensure law enforcement agencies are hiring officers who are more mature and educated. Initially, the measure would have limited police hiring to those 25 years or older, or who have a bachelor’s degree. It immediately drew intense opposition from police groups.
Those requirements have been softened significantly in amendments. Now, the bill would require that officers be at least 21 years old, and either have a bachelor’s degree or complete “an education program developed by POST that would be roughly equivalent to an associate’s degree that is focused on developing critical thinking skills that are important for law enforcement.”
It passed the Senate public safety committee this week and heads to the Senate appropriations Committee next.
SB 2: Decertifying Police Officers
The Legislature’s inability to pass a measure last year, following sustained Black Lives Matter protests and urgent calls for reform, that would decertify police officers who commit serious misconduct, was considered perhaps its biggest failure. California is one of only a handful of states that doesn’t automatically decertify officers in certain cases. Senate President Pro Tem Toni Atkins vowed to help the bill pass this year.
Now it’s SB 2, and it’s making its way through the Legislature once again. It would create a number of standards that would disqualify someone from being a police officer in California, such as being kicked out of the military in certain circumstances, and create a process for decertifying officers. It would grant new powers to the Commission on Peace Officer Standards and Training, which sets the minimum criteria for applicants.
It also “takes away blanket immunities from officers who engage in the most egregious conduct. There is enormous public support” for doing so, said Julia Yoo, a San Diego civil rights attorney and president of the National Police Accountability Project.
Atkins has signed on as a co-author this time around. The measure passed through the Assembly public safety committee this week, and heads to the Assembly appropriations committee.
It’s opposed by virtually every police union in the state.
At a discussion this week on gun violence prevention, San Diego City Attorney Mara Elliott said she intends to use $1 million in funding from the latest state budget to continue training law enforcement agencies across the state on how to take firearms away from people who pose a threat to themselves or others.
Elliott’s office hasn’t shed much light on how that money will actually be spent — it represents a 400 percent increase over what the office previously received — beyond noting that the money will keep the trainings going through 2023. Joined by California Attorney General Rob Bonta and San Diego Police Chief David Nisleit, the discussion amounted to a victory lap for Elliott and the attention she’s brought the city.
Since 2017, Elliott has used the state’s “red flag” law to file gun violence restraining orders, or GVROs, and petition the courts to temporarily confiscate firearms until a person is deemed well again.
“It is not a permanent removal (of weapons), but rather a crisis intervention,” she said.
One of the words stressed throughout the discussion was “collaboration.” Elliot said gun violence restraining orders can be used as a tool by school districts and employers in partnership with cities to stop school or workplace shootings before they happen.
According to the city attorney’s office, GVROs have been used more than 550 times, in the process removing more than 1,000 guns from people who were threatening themselves or others.
Nisleit repeatedly called the program a “game-changer” for San Diego public safety.
“The goal is removing firearms from people who wish to do harm,” he said.
With new funding from the state, officials are hoping that gun violence can be decreased statewide.
“This is a model that others can use, and the data speaks for itself,” Bonta said. “There’s not many brand-new ideas (for gun violence prevention), but there are good ideas that can be used in new places. This is one of them.”
– Devin Whatley