With the Sacramento County District Attorney and the California Attorney General both passing on filing charges against local officers involved in the March 18 shooting death of Stephon Clark, many in the community are reinvigorating efforts to pass a police use-of-force reform bill.
The Sacramento OBSERVER recently sat down with AB 392 co-author Assemblymember Dr Shirley Weber to discuss the future of the bill that was first introduced, then as AB 931, two weeks after Clark’s death.
Q: In the wake of the decisions in the Clark shooting, some are looking to AB 392 as a shining hope for justice. Is it?
A: It can be and it is. It begins to change the game in terms of what the conversation is really about. When I was asked to do this bill, I thought that the bill was actually already in effect, that that was the standard by which people use lethal force, that it is not something that’s used lightly or as your first response. It’s generally a response that’s made based on the circumstances you find yourself in and you try not to take that step, because that step can be final.
I discovered in people’s comments that they would say why didn’t they (officers) do this? and why didn’t they do that? and why didn’t they use the helicopter more effectively in the Stephon Clark situation. All of those questions being asked clearly indicate to me that people are saying there were methods available to get the situation under control if it was an out of control situation and why didn’t they use those first. This bill basically does that. It says, based on the totality of the situation, you only use lethal force when it is absolutely necessary to prevent an imminent or serious bodily injury or death to the officer or to someone in that immediate community. So that if you are involved in a situation that is a question of vandalism a person is breaking windows that doesn’t say that they’re basically threatening someone or that they have someone hostage or anything of that nature do you take a vandalism situation and turn it into a use of lethal Force kind of situation and do you look at other options and other choices. This bill would say OK you just got the first make sure that this is really a situation where use of force is needed if it’s not you need to look at other means to deescalate the situation, get it under control and hopefully as a respect for life not end up taking someone’s life. It also says that as a result of the totality of the situation if a person violates that because there were other methods and means clearly available to them the police have the option to, they can either reprimand or suspend or fire the officer as well as the district attorney has the opportunity to file charges against the person. The current law talks about what is reasonable, what is reasonable, and what we’re saying is, what is absolutely necessary? We’re changing the standard and the language from a ‘reasonable’ position to a ‘necessary’ position for the use of lethal force.
Q: If AB 392 had been the law of the land on March 18, 2018, would the outcome in Sequita Thompson’s backyard have been any different?
A: It’s hard to predict, but we would hope that it would. It’s hard to say, ‘Oh yeah, this would have changed the world, but we know that if this had been the method or the practice of law enforcement, that if it was ‘their thing,’ that it had to be ‘necessary’ that it may have produced a different kind of activities and a different mindset going into that situation when it was reported. That would have been different, possibly. It’s also possible that the folks evaluating what took place, the district attorney and the attorney general, looking at it with the standard of ‘was it absolutely necessary?’ or were there other things available, that outcome may have been different.
Q: The district attorney said the sole focus of her investigation was if the shooting death of Stephon Clark was a crime. Her decision has people throughout the city and across the country upset.
A: According to current policies, it wasn’t a crime. The current policy is ‘was it reasonable’ to be afraid in those kind of things? Our goal with this bill is obviously to focus on reducing the number of deaths when we go forward. People ask about the practice, whether or not this makes our officers vulnerable; this has been applied in Seattle and in Seattle we’ve seen a decline in the number of deaths and injuries, but we’ve also seen that no injuries have been increased for police officers, that they are not at any greater harm.
Q: Your strongest opposition comes from police unions. Have you had any conversations with them? Has there been a meeting of the minds?
A: We have been meeting with police officers now for over a year. We had AB 931 last year. We met, we met, we met. We tried to reach some kind of agreement and consensus and we did not. We began again because we ran out of time trying to meet with them. We ran out of time trying to figure out what would move the officers association to a position of support. We began again this September with the same kind of goal in mind to see if there’s a way in which we can come together, could we arrive at a consensus that would create a greater sense of safety for communities as well officers and we could not come to a conclusion. we did not come to a meeting of the minds. We’ve met with them several times and as a result, they have offered their own bill, which doesn’t give any more assurance of what needs to happen for the communities than the current practice that’s there. We will continue to meet with them if they choose to, but we’ve come to realize that this is the best way to move forward with the community and to try to get what we think is necessary to protect lives in California.
Q: Stephon Clark’s mother, Sequette Clark has asked why officers pursued her son with their guns drawn for a vandalism call. Her question alludes to why, time and time again the response from law enforcement is different when a Black person or suspect is involved. Why do we see it and they don’t?
A: It is very different. I have no idea why we see things so differently, other than one’s life experiences will cause you to see things differently. Our task is oftentimes to make people understand those life experiences. This issue that we have now is not a new issue. It’s an old issue. Most people know it; my brother, my uncle and everybody else talked about their encounters with police officers. You had to be very careful, because the least bit of move or the least bit of a turn or something like that could end your life. This has been the reality that we have had to live with forever. Nobody believed us. Why? Because we’re talking about the officers who are their sons, their fathers and they know them in a different way and they did not believe that this could ever be the truth, until the cell phone comes out with a video or the video cameras come out and people can make their own pictures. People saw the Rodney King situation and tried to figure out what was that all about, all these people kicking this man on the ground. That shocked people because if he had showed up to a police station, beat up that way, they would have said he fell down, ‘oh, he tried to resist arrest,’ he did this, he did that and that would have been it. But the video, it didn’t change people’s perception of us, but it validated what we have been saying all of our lives that when we come into contact with officers oftentimes it’s a different experience and as mothers we have to teach our sons to do certain things in order to stay alive. That is just a fact that we have to deal with.
Most of the revolts that occurred in cities, I lived it Los Angeles, and whether it was the Watts riots or what some call the Watts revolt, or other kinds of incidents that occurred, almost every revolt occurred because of some police misconduct. If you look at the history of it, how they started, it was because somebody either was mistreated in a stop or something happened and the community saw it and it erupted because they recognized it. This is the reality that we’ve had to live with for a very long time. Oftentimes people thought we were over exaggerating, not being truthful and then sometimes people said ‘well you weren’t nice enough to the officers.’ We saw what happened in (Minnesota) where the young man was being very compliant and cooperative and talking to them, telling them he had something in his glove compartment and still ended up dead. For many people that was the situation. They said, ‘Wow, there’s nothing we can do in terms of training our kids to protect them from sometimes being the victim. Even when they are being compliant and being cooperative, they may still end up dead. It is a major, major situation that we have. This bill is one of the attempts to try to change the game, change the definition, change the evaluation, as well as to change the training of officers so that they are trained to respond differently.
Q: You mentioned perceptions. People’s perceptions can be rooted in race and racism and whether or not they believe Blacks are worthy of fair treatment and justice. Will a bill change that?
A: I’m not sure if the bill can change people’s hearts. It can truly change their training and their experiences and the act of conduct, and how they respond to things. Maybe as a result of that, people’s hearts will change, but we surely want to change their behavior and them seeing that it may be necessary to have consequences for inappropriate behavior and that’s what people understand sometimes.
Q: What are AB 392’s chances?
A: It is going to be dependant upon getting the members of both houses to take seriously the life of African American and Latino males and to do something to protect them and not be afraid of law enforcement attacks on people or whatever they may do to try to, maybe unseat folks. Our community needs to make sure that their elected officials understand why this is important for them. They need to visit with them and talk with them and make sure that their elected officials are voting right. If we get that, the bill will pass. We will have it as law in the state of California. We’re also asking people to do other things like go to the churches and mobilize people. I’m doing all the fighting I can do and will continue to do, but in the end it’s going to be dependant upon 41 people in the Assembly pushing the right button and 21 people in the Senate pushing the right button.
Q: What does a post-AB 392 California look like?
A: We hope it results and better training, safety for officers, safety for the public, and if things go wrong, a public that has the opportunity to look at the assessment of what took place and make fair and just determination on it; that people are better trained to handle these situations, and therefore we should see much fewer incidents occurring of unarmed individuals being killed.
Q: What’s the timeline on this?
A: We’re working to try to have this bill heard in the Public Safety Committee in the next couple of weeks. We’d like to have it around the 19th or so, I know there’s a rally for Stephon Clark. The bill has been written, the bill is in committee and it’s just a matter of them scheduling it for us. We want to try to schedule it in the next couple of weeks and move forward from there. If that’s the case, hopefully it will go before our Floor in the next month and a half or so, so that we can get a vote and then get it to the Senate. Everything has to be done by September.
By Genoa Barrow | OBSERVER Senior Staff Writer
Photo by Robert Maryland