(CALMATTERS) – If officers shot and killed Sean Monterrosa in Connecticut or New York — instead of in Vallejo, California — a state agency would investigate the June 2 incident, when a police officer reportedly mistook a hammer in the 22-year-old Latino man’s sweatshirt for a gun and fired shots through the windshield of his police vehicle.

If officers shot and killed Michael Thomas in Georgia — instead of in Lancaster, California — a grand jury could investigate a Los Angeles County sheriff’s deputy’s claim that Thomas reached for the deputy’s gun during a domestic disturbance call inside the 62-year-old Black man’s home on June 11.

If officers shot and killed Sunshine Sallac in Utah, Wisconsin or Illinois — instead of in Lake Forest, California — an outside agency would investigate the June 24 incident, in which Orange County sheriff’s deputies responded to a residential burglary call and opened fire on the 22-year-old woman of Asian heritage, who they said was standing across the street holding a gun. 

Instead, in all three cases and in dozens other California cases in recent years, the departments that hired and trained the officers involved in fatal shootings will determine what happens next. It’s standard protocol in this state, despite the fact that many legislators, local politicians, the families of the victims and, in some cases, law enforcement representatives themselves continue to call for greater outside scrutiny.

As the country contemplates the national ramifications of George Floyd’s final nine minutes of life in Minneapolis, California has its own version of the question: If this state is the nation’s laboratory for progressive laws, why has it been unable to keep the police from policing themselves?

“This one is actually embarrassing for California,” said Democratic Assemblymember Kevin McCarty of Sacramento, who is trying for the third time in five years to pass a law requiring the state’s attorney general to probe deadly officer encounters. “I think it’s a common sense reform that’s ripe for the taking this year in California.”

Yet California’s past three attorney generals — including former Gov. Jerry Brown and the state’s first two attorney generals of color, Kamala Harris and Xavier Becerra, all Democrats — have been reluctant to take on this responsibility, despite already having the authority to do so.

“We are neither equipped nor resourced to take over for the 58 district attorneys that role,” Becerra said in answer to a question from CalMatters during a Wednesday press conference. “On a limited occasion, we do. And usually it’s because a district attorney or his or her office must recuse himself, herself, itself from the prosecution or decision because of some conflict. Or because there is an abusive discretion on the part of the office of the DA. Or some other very exceptional circumstance.”

State oversight — by invitation only?

Nonetheless, McCarty‘s Assembly Bill 1506, which the California Senate is to consider when the Legislature returns from break, is more modest than previous iterations he’s carried that have failed. He’s abandoned the idea of requiring the attorney general to oversee inquiries into every deadly police encounter.

Instead this year’s version would create a new division within the state Justice Department to investigate deadly police encounters only if the local policing agency or district attorney actually asked for such an inquiry. The new division would also have the responsibility to prosecute any wrongdoing it uncovers.

The idea is patterned after laws in five other states: Wisconsin, Illinois, New York, New Jersey and Connecticut.

Thus far, 43 other lawmakers have co-sponsored the new measure and McCarty is confident that, unlike with his earlier attempts, locally elected district attorneys will endorse rather than oppose his legislation, since he sought their input. The California District Attorneys Association was set to take a vote July 9, but put it off for a week to continue working with McCarty on amendments, said Vern Pierson, the association’s president and the DA of El Dorado County.

But what about Becerra, whose department would be responsible for taking on deadly force investigations?

California Attorney General Xavier Becerra
California Attorney General Xavier has resisted attempts to have his department routinely get involved in investigating or overseeing deadly force used by local police. Photo by Anne Wernikoff for CalMatters

Thus far, he refuses to answer the question. On Wednesday, Becerra said he hadn’t been briefed on the latest version of the bill, “so it’d be hard for me to tell you where we would stand at the Department of Justice at this time.”

The pending bill says that if the Legislature doesn’t create new funding for this, the Justice Department still has to create it from existing funding — likely a more affordable prospect given the limited number of cases in which local authorities would request the state’s involvement.

At least one frustrated local prosecutor would like to see a mandate.

Last month, Solano County District Attorney Krishna Abrams announced on Facebook that she asked Becerra to take over the review of last month’s Vallejo police shooting of Monterrosa — and that his office denied her request.

According to the police department’s account, its officers responded to looting at a Walgreens, where an officer saw a man in a hooded sweatshirt crouch down in the parking lot and reach for his waist. The officer fired his weapon five times through the windshield of his vehicle and struck the man once. The man, identified as Monterossa, a 22-year-old resident of San Francisco, died at a local hospital. Investigators later found a 15-inch hammer in his sweatshirt pocket, but no gun.

The police shooting of Monterrosa occurred during a fraught moment for American law enforcement. The police killings of Floyd in Minnesota, Breonna Taylor in Kentucky, Ahmaud Arbery and Rayshard Brooks in Georgia, and officers’ forceful crackdowns on demonstrations, once again forced the country into a searing examination of police violence, particularly against Black and Latino residents.