Robert Salonga| San Jose Mercury News|
Social-justice groups at state Capitol to support proposed accountability laws
South Bay community groups joined social-justice activists from throughout California at the state Capitol on Monday to show support for a pair of police-reform bills passing through crucial hearings this week.
“We’re at a critical point, both bills have to get through appropriations by the end of the week,” said Alice Lynch, a leader in the faith-based People Acting in Community Together. “It’s critical for community to be there and show this amount of support, and the impact it’ll have on people’s lives.”
AB 931, which originated in the Assembly last year and was revived in the state Senate after the fatal police shooting of Stephon Clark in Sacramento back in March, is in what is known as the suspense file in the Senate appropriations committee. To make it to the governor’s desk this year, the bill would need to pass through committee by Friday, then get passed by the full Senate, then get sent back to Assembly for another approval vote by the end of the month.
That is why much of the demonstration entailed marching and chanting on the third floor of the Capitol, outside the office of state Sen. Anthony Portantino, D-La Cañada Flintridge, the Senate’s appropriations chairman.
Under the latest version of AB 931, police officers in California who use deadly force would have to show that such force was necessary and unavoidable, and that they exhausted less-lethal alternatives and de-escalation tactics that could be reasonably deployed in a confrontation with a suspect. It would also weaken protections for officers from criminal prosecution in cases where they are shown to have exercised gross negligence leading up to or during a deadly use of force.
AB 931 dovetails with SB 1421, which would give the public expanded access to officer histories and records detailing serious use of force, and any on-duty sexual assault or dishonesty committed.
SB 1421 is in a similar status with the Assembly appropriations committee, which is chaired by Lorena Gonzalez Fletcher, D-San Diego. Both bills have hearings scheduled for Thursday.
Demonstrators on Monday included relatives of civilians killed in officer-involved shootings and encounters, and they methodically chanted the names of the 172 people killed by police in California last year, a figure tallied by the state Department of Justice. At one point, the activists staged a “die-in” in which they laid down in the halls of the Capitol to illustrate that number.
“We have the right, and the responsibility to take up this space, and remind public officials of what is important to us,” said PACT leader Derrick Sanderlin.
Other advocacy for the bill has come in the form of “(M)others,” a grassroots stage production based on the experiences of activists like Laurie Valdez, whose partner Antonio Guzman Lopez was shot and killed in 2014 in an encounter with San Jose State police officers. The play was written and produced by SJSU Assistant Professor Nikki Yeboah, and debuted Monday in Sacramento after Monday’s rallies. It has a second run Thursday evening in that city at the First United Methodist Church on J Street.
The force bill has spurred a passionate debate that has pitted civil libertarians against police advocacy groups, including the California Police Chiefs Association, which says AB 931 would unfairly codify a “hindsight” evaluation of police shootings and other serious uses of force. They point to a change in language that invokes a vague “necessary” standard from the existing benchmark of what a reasonable officer would do in a similar encounter.
“It might seem like a small nuance, but in reality it is a paradigm shift to one of the most crucial aspects of our work,” Cal Chiefs President David Swing, also chief of Morgan Hill police, said to this news organization last week. “Officers don’t have the luxury of 20/20 hindsight when faced with split-second rapidly developing situations. (The bill) needs to be put down for this year or seriously reworked.”
Other critics of the proposed bills question the necessity of changing the law as opposed to departments adopting progressive policies, like those adopted in recent years in San Jose, which include broadening the scope of internal police shooting reviews. Proponents counter with the assertion that many departments won’t change unless compelled by law.
PACT volunteer Susan Wolfe said the proposed laws are long overdue.
“It’s changing a law that has not been updated since 1872,” she said. “Our community doesn’t feel like this is a big ask. Our loved ones’ lives are worth more time, and more effort, than what they’re given today.”