California has passed a law limiting police use of deadly force, in an attempt to tighten the circumstances under which officers could use lethal measures. California is America’s most populous state and has also had several recent high-profile police-involved shootings, some of which have involved wrongful death litigation. The new law is an attempt to correct that. 

However, critics argue that the bill is nowhere close to what it was originally intended to be and that the police unions misused their positions to significantly water down the final bill. Why is this law so important to California? And why are the shooting victims, their lawyers, and human rights activists not completely on board? Read on to learn more about how this new law may affect you or your loved ones. 

The New Law and Its Scope

On August 19, 2019, Gavin Newsom, the governor of the state of California, signed Assembly Bill 392 (AB 392) and brought into effect Stephon Clark’s Law. The decree tries to narrow the constraints under which police officers can use fatal weapons on the job. The law updates the long-standing usage-of-force statute in California. The statute has been around since 1872 and was one of the oldest of its kind. 

According to some advocates, this new law would help save lives and bring down police violence significantly in California. They believe state policies concerning the use of force would directly influence the prospect of the police using force, which includes police shootings.

If the new law were in effect at the time of the killing of Stephon Clark, for whom the law was named, and the case had gone for a trial, the court would have considered the conduct of the police officer leading up to the shooting, instead of only the actual moment the shooting occurred. In other words, the court would have not just tried to ascertain whether the cops were scared for their lives when they actually struck, but also how the officers acted beforehand, which includes the time when they first saw Clark (see more below).

Some Background

Nationally, the use of deadly force policies has attracted severe scrutiny in the last few years. This is because multiple fatal police interactions with civilians have been captured on camera and made public. However, there still isn’t any standard policy that all police departments in the country strictly follow. Department policies, in fact, vary across cities and states.

Previously, California police, like the cops in most other states, could resort to deadly measures if they felt the situation demanded it. The new law mandates California police officers to use deadly force only if it’s “necessary” for safeguarding themselves against an imminent risk of serious injury or death.

When Barack Obama was in office, San Francisco and Seattle adopted a similar standard, and the number of incidents involving deadly force by the police came down.

The Shooting of Stephon Clark

As mentioned above, one of the primary drivers for this shift in the state of California was the people’s anger over the 2018 police slaying of Stephon Clark in Sacramento. Clark was a 22-year-old African American. At the time of his shooting, he was standing unarmed in the backyard of his grandparents’ home with a cell phone in his hand. The police maintain they mistook his mobile device for a weapon, which prompted them to act against Clark.

State and federal prosecutors did not press charges against the police officers, stating the officers were scared for their lives. Their actions were, therefore, deemed well within the law. Clark’s death and the lack of charges against the concerned officers triggered protests in the capital city, drawing national attention.

Criticism for AB 392

Several critics working for shooting victims’ families claim the law that finally came into effect is a far cry from what it was supposed to be in the beginning. Originally, the bill required police to use all other tools or measures before resorting to deadly force of any kind. The current law, according to the protesters, has the original bill’s scope in spirit but not in effect. After the amendments made to the bill, some police violence victims’ family members withdrew their backing for the bill.

Critics point out that the new law doesn’t clearly define the word “necessary.” Previous iterations of the bill had a proper definition for the term. However, it was purportedly taken off the bill so that the law enforcement was happy. According to the current bill, the “necessary” circumstances would be determined by a police officer.

Criticism for AB 392 also involve another bill that would approve additional funding to train California police. This training bill, which is stuck in committee, was amended earlier in 2019 by its backers, so the bill could be cleared only if the use-of-police-force bill got clearance. This led to reports that the bills were interlinked. Critics argue that the state should not pour more money into police training and instead use it for things such as mental health resources, livable wage jobs, and other pro-community elements.

Supporters of AB 392

The proponents of the new law state that the final bill amendments (removing the detailed meaning of the term “necessary“) would not hurt the scope of the law. They say the law would still be one of the toughest laws relating to the use of force in the United States. The law’s backers argue that the courts would have no difficulties interpreting the “necessary” term even when there is no formal definition.

Governor Newsom, in an interview, responded to critics during an interview by saying that the new law is a positive step forward, but he agreed there was room for improvement. He also recognizes the new bill doesn’t intend or pretend to be some kind of a quick fix. He, therefore, appealed to the Black community and the Californian people at large to change their mindsets and give the state an opportunity to prove itself. The Governor also stated he was not ready to attend any more funerals and would feel accountable if he had to.

If you’d like to know more about California AB 392, also known as Stephon Clark’s law, or where you stand as a citizen of the state in the context of this new law, contact Quirk Reed. We are here to assist you if you or a loved one have been involved in a police-involved shooting or a wrongful death incident. Reach out for a free consultation, and we can answer your questions and help you get the justice you deserve.