Court settlement warns police of new restrictions on use of deadly force

Days after Governor Gavin Newsom signed a 2019 law intended to reduce police shootings, law enforcement union leaders began telling officers that the new policy didn’t really change much.

It did not impose stricter limits on when police can use lethal force, the president of one of the state’s most influential police unions wrote in a memo to its member agencies, and ” will not have a significant impact on the way law enforcement carries out their daily work,” according to documents made public with a recent court settlement.

Alarmed by the “misinformation campaign” targeting new restrictions on the use of lethal force by police, the American Civil Liberties Union sued the Pomona Police Department in July 2020 for adopting policies and materials of training influenced by union efforts to undermine the law.

Under a settlement agreement reached last month, the Pomona Police Department will be required to train its officers in lethal force under 2019 legislation that Newsom signed into law amid nationwide protests over deadly police killings. police of unarmed black men, including the 2018 murder of a Sacramento man in his grandparents’ backyard.

Civil rights advocates hope the settlement will finally end the years-long disagreement over the law’s significance and send a warning to state police departments that they must comply or face repercussions. legal.

“This settlement is important because it affirms that despite what these police lobby groups might have said … the law has in fact changed and the law has been amended to reinforce the standard of deadly force,” said attorney Adrianna Wong. Principal at the ACLU of Southern California.

The law, known as Assembly Bill 392, says police can only use deadly force when “necessary in defense of human life,” a change supporters hailed as a crucial step toward mitigating police shooting — but one that law enforcement critics saw as little more than a technical update to an outdated state law.

Atti. Gen. Rob Bonta, who voted for the measure during his tenure in the state Assembly, said the settlement could provide more clarity on the law.

“No one should have a misunderstanding about what [AB] 392 requires it,” he said. “To the extent that there has been a misunderstanding or a difference in interpretation by some in California, now that it’s clarified, that’s certainly a good thing.”

The battle over AB 392 was one of the Capitol’s most intense legislative fights of 2019. Families of police shooting victims have regularly taken to the Capitol to advocate for tighter restrictions on when officers can pull the trigger. Law enforcement groups have raised serious safety concerns about setting what they described as an “impossible standard” for their members.

In the end, both sides claimed victory.

The proposal raised California’s deadly force standard from “reasonable” to “necessary” to preserve human life. But to negotiate a deal with police unions, lawmakers agreed to a series of amendments that included removing the definition of “necessary” from the final version of the bill, leaving that interpretation up to the courts.

With the changes, law enforcement groups said the bill upheld the “reasonable” standard and simply codified into California law two U.S. Supreme Court cases that dictate when and how lethal force can be used.

One such case, Graham v. Connor, claims lethal force is justified if a “reasonable officer” in the same circumstances would do the same, leading prosecutors to focus only on the split second when an officer decides to shoot.

The new law includes elements of this case because it is also based on the point of view of a “reasonable officer”. But it forces prosecutors to consider both the behavior of the suspect and the officer that led to a shooting, a broader look at the circumstances that aims to encourage de-escalation tactics and other strategies. An analysis of the bill determined that it “would exceed the standards set forth and set forth by the Supreme Court of the United States.”

But Brian Marvel, president of the Peace Officers Research Assn. of California, sent a message to member organizations days after Newsom signed the bill, saying advocates had “failed to change the standard for assessing the use of lethal force from ‘reasonably objective.’ to ‘necessary’” and that the change wouldn’t significantly change current policing practices.

Lexipol, a public safety consulting firm that counts many California police departments among its clients, also released a legal analysis of the bill that said while AB 392 included some “benign changes,” the “good news” was that he maintained “reasonableness”. ” Standard.

The ACLU said the misinformation quickly spread to state departments and led to poor training — including Pomona — that violated the new law.

“Pomona Police Department officers have a misconception of the law regarding their use of force, and they carry that misunderstanding with them at all times as they patrol the community while armed with deadly weapons. “, alleged the lawsuit.

The Pomona Police Department did not respond to requests for comment. According to court records, senior department officials claimed officers were mandated to watch a video about the requirements of the law and that the agency updated its use-of-force policy twice in 2020.

The settlement agreement requires the department to provide “significant change in the use of force threshold” training and update its use of force policy to reflect the high legal standard, which officers must sign as a of recognition. It is also prohibited to use PORAC ​​communications for formal training purposes.

Even after the settlement was reached, some law enforcement groups still maintained that the law did not bring about radical change.

In a statement, Lexipol spokeswoman Shannon Pieper said the company shared information with its customers “in accordance with the wording of the law”.

Marvel declined to comment, but through a spokesperson pointed to a letter PORAC ​​attorneys wrote to him that reaffirmed the association’s legal position.

“PORAC ​​supports our legal analysis that AB 392’s amendments to the Penal Code have largely codified constitutional standards established by the courts and modernized antiquated California laws,” the attorneys wrote.

The continuing disagreement could signal future lawsuits.

Secretary of State Shirley Weber, who wrote AB 392 as a former assemblywoman, said law enforcement organizations worked hard in 2019 to “undo the impact of the bill.” The ACLU lawsuit helps “really drive home the intent of the bill, what it did and what the language actually meant,” Weber said.

“I guess we’ll have to keep doing that,” she said.

Los Angeles Times

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