Kathleen Bils in her San Diego home on May 1, 2021, a year after her son was killed by a sheriff’s deputy. Photo by Ariana Drehsler for CalMatters

(CALMATTERS) – This month, Kathleen Bils laid a memorial stone in a flower bed on the San Diego street where a sheriff’s deputy shot her son one year earlier. Some 500 miles north, at a marina on the eastern edge of San Francisco Bay, Addie Kitchen recently held a memorial in the city where a police officer killed her grandson. 

“I want people to understand that our children are important to us and that we want justice,” said Kitchen, a retired prison guard. “We want the officers to be held accountable.”

That process is now under way in courts in San Diego and Alameda counties. In both cases, officers who fired the fatal shots are facing criminal charges as a result of a closely watched and contested state law that took effect on Jan. 1, 2020. 

Passed in 2019 — a year before the killing of George Floyd sparked nationwide protests over racism and police violence — California’s law further limits when police can use deadly force, saying it’s allowed “only when necessary in defense of human life.” Previously, an officer could be justified in shooting someone if doing so was deemed “reasonable” — a standard that many civil rights advocates believed was vague and allowed police to kill with impunity.  

So they championed the new law as a way to reduce police shootings and hold officers accountable when they unnecessarily take a life. Law enforcement groups put their weight behind companion legislation that was supposed to improve how officers are trained. 

Nearly a year-and-a-half since the laws took effect, the two criminal cases — a San Diego sheriff’s deputy charged with second-degree murder and a San Leandro police officer charged with manslaughter — are the most concrete signs that one of the nation’s strictest use-of-force laws is having an impact. 

Addie Kitchen, Steven Taylor’s grandmother, speaks to the crowd at a celebration of life held for Taylor on the one-year anniversary of his death, at the San Leandro Marina on April 18, 2021. Photo by Anne Wernikoff, CalMatters

Prosecutors in both cases cited the law in their decisions to file charges. How judges and juries apply it in these cases could shape its power in the years to come. 

But beyond these two cases, the available evidence so far suggests that the new law has not been as transformative as supporters hoped when they pushed the so-called Act to Save Lives through the Legislature. Nor has the training law led to widespread, state-certified instruction for officers on the new standard for using deadly force.  

CalMatters analyzed data on deadly police shootings, officers charged with crimes for on-duty deaths, and use-of-force training of officers since the law took effect. The analysis found:

  • The number of fatal police shootings in California rose: from 135 in 2019 to 148 in 2020, according to data tracked by the Washington Post. 
  • Five officers in California have been criminally charged for on-duty deaths, though two of them (in San Francisco and Contra Costa counties) are being prosecuted for shootings that happened before the new law took effect; in another case, the Stanislaus County district attorney won’t say if her decision is based on the new law. In the 15 years before 2020, only six California officers were criminally charged for killing on the job, according to data compiled by a criminal justice professor at Bowling Green State University in Ohio.
  • The training of officers on the new law is highly inconsistent across the state, with some agencies enrolling them in a two-hour state-certified course, others creating their own training and some departments just handing officers a memo and a 14-minute video. Only 12% of law enforcement officers in California have completed the state-certified training course, according to data from the Commission on Peace Officers Standards and Training.

“It will take a while to have the effect that I think should happen,” said Shirley Weber, California’s secretary of state who, as an Assembly member, wrote the law. 

“I’m still concerned nationally that there’s entirely too much violence in terms of use of force… But at least the response is changing from, ‘Oh well we can’t do anything,’ to now, ‘We can.’ And that, in itself, for me is hopeful,” Weber said.

“The charging decisions, yes, have increased since the new law took effect. But the new law is not the cause of the charges. It is the political climate.”


Experts interviewed by CalMatters say it’s too soon to accurately assess the impact of California’s new policing law, which is being implemented amid a swirl of other forces that could influence its effectiveness. Even under normal circumstances, it can take several years to measure the impact of any policy shift, and 2020 was far from normal with both a once-in-a-century pandemic and a nationwide reckoning over race. 

“I don’t think the value of the statute can be determined by one or two cases,” said Philip Stinson, the Bowling Green State University professor who tracks police prosecutions nationwide. “If any officer is convicted as a result of that statute, I think there’ll be appellate challenges. It’s just too early to draw any conclusions.”https://e.infogram.com/_/T0ESbuBQsJiumPkbw7cl?parent_url=https%3A%2F%2Fcalmatters.org%2Fjustice%2F2021%2F05%2Fpolice-deadly-force-law%2F&src=embed#async_embed

Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, California saw a dramatic 30% spike in homicides during 2020, according to the Public Policy Institute of California. Meanwhile, the nation went into upheaval over police killings after a Minneapolis officer kneeled on George Floyd’s neck until he stopped breathing. On April 20, Derek Chauvin was convicted of murder and manslaughter. 

That kind of public pressure has led more prosecutors to file charges against police, said Michael Rains, a Bay Area criminal defense attorney who represents law enforcement officers accused of wrongdoing.

“The charging decisions, yes, have increased since the new law took effect. But the new law is not the cause of the charges,” Rains said. “It is the political climate.”

It was the police killing of another unarmed Black man that sparked the political momentum leading to California’s new law. In 2018, Sacramento police shot Stephon Clark in his grandparents’ backyard after mistaking the cell phone he was holding for a gun. Over the next year, Clark’s family and friends joined with hundreds of Californians to demonstrate at the Capitol and implore legislators to change the law.

Police groups lobbied against early versions of the bill, saying it would put officers in danger, but eventually reached a compromise with civil rights advocates. That caused Black Lives Matter to drop support for the bill and law enforcement groups to drop opposition. In the end, most civil rights advocates said the new law made important strides even though it wasn’t as far-reaching as they initially hoped. One of the law’s most significant changes allows prosecutors to consider officers’ actions leading up to a shooting when deciding whether deadly force is justified. 

Wanda Johnson, left, mother of Oscar Grant, Addie Kitchen and Stevante Clark, brother of Stephon Clark, pose for a group photo at a celebration of life held for Steven Taylor. Photo by Anne Wernikoff, CalMatters