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New California Law Says Police Should Kill Only When 'Necessary'

California's new lethal force bill "changes the culture of policing," Assemblywoman Shirley Weber said Monday. She's seen here in April, alongside Assemblyman Kevin McCarty, the bill's co-author.
Rich Pedroncelli
California's new lethal force bill "changes the culture of policing," Assemblywoman Shirley Weber said Monday. She's seen here in April, alongside Assemblyman Kevin McCarty, the bill's co-author.

Police officers in California will be required to use lethal force only as a "necessary" response to a threat — not merely as an "objectively reasonable" one — under legislation that Gov. Gavin Newsom signed into law Monday. Under the tighter standard, deadly force is legal only in instances where there are no other options.

"I'm ready to sign this damn thing," Newsom told the crowd at a ceremony in Sacramento. But before he did so, he invited the family members and loved ones of people who advocated for the measure to stand alongside him.

"I would be honored if you would join us up onstage," Newsom said.

Surrounded by dozens of people, the governor said he hopes the law, which takes effect in January, will become an example for other states.

"As California goes, so goes the rest of the United States of America," he said. "And we are doing something today that stretches the boundaries of possibility and sends a message to people all across this country — that they can do more."

The legislation emerged from a push for new rules in response to police killings of unarmed black men such as Stephon Clark, who was shot last year after a police chase that ended in his grandmother's backyard. The officers in that shooting said they believed Clark had a gun; he was found to have been holding a cellphone, and prosecutors said in March that the officers would not face criminal charges.

The new law reflects a compromise between civil rights advocates who say it will save lives and law enforcement groups that want more clarity on the use of force — but do not want to undermine legal protections for officers.

"The whole debate boils down to two words: 'necessary' and 'reasonable,' " Ben Adler of Capital Public Radio reports. "Right now, deadly force is justified if a reasonable officer would have acted similarly in that situation. So in other words, what a typical officer would have done based on his or her training. When the law takes effect in January, that standard will change to when the officer reasonably believes deadly force is necessary."

But Adler also notes that the law mostly avoids offering a specific definition of "necessary" — a move that is widely seen as leaving the interpretation up to the courts, where judges will weigh what is "necessary" in the context of officers' use of force.

Assemblywoman Shirley Weber, D-San Diego, is widely seen as the driving force behind the bill, AB 392. In promoting it, she has said it will boost the public's trust in the police and protect the sanctity of life in all communities. When the California State Legislature approved it last month, she said she was proud of her colleagues.

"Significant change is never easy, but those who voted today looked to their conscience and found the courage to do the right thing for California," Weber said at the time. She added, "I have to thank the families who have lost loved ones to police violence. They have been the energy and the moral compass for making this possible."

On Monday, Weber said the measure "basically changes the culture of policing in California."

Also speaking at Monday's event was Kori McCoy, whose younger brother, Willie McCoy, was killed in February. Police officers had discovered Willie McCoy, 20, asleep in his car in a Taco Bell parking lot in Vallejo, with a gun in his lap and the doors locked. When McCoy started to wake up, the six officers fired a total of 55 shots in 3.5 seconds, killing him.

"The reality is, officers rarely face consequences, and families like mine are left to wonder who is policing the police," Kori McCoy said on Monday.

Of the new use-of-force law, McCoy said, "It offers a ray of solace for my family and hope that it will spare other families from bearing this burden with us."

After Newsom signed the bill into law, California Police Chiefs Association President Ron Lawrence issued a statement saying that along with another measure that deals with training and funding, the new legislation "will modernize our state's policies on the use of force, implementing the very best practices gathered from across our nation."

The law was approved with bipartisan support and was backed by Newsom and leaders in the Legislature. Along the way, it was tempered to allay concerns raised by police associations — and those compromises have prompted criticisms that the legislation doesn't go far enough in mandating change.

The compromises prompted the Black Lives Matter movement, an early sponsor of the bill, to withdraw its support.

"Unfortunately, in efforts to get law enforcement to lift their opposition, the bill was so significantly amended that it is no longer the kind of meaningful legislation we can support," said Black Lives Matter's Melina Abdullah, a co-founder of its Los Angeles chapter.

The group also criticized the pairing of the new law with a separate bill that sends more money to police budgets. That bill, SB 230, calls for more training for officers and more clarity about the legal standards for the use of force. And its backers note that it also requires police agencies to adopt policies on de-escalation tactics and response proportionality, in addition to rules about nonlethal alternatives and rendering medical aid.

The American Civil Liberties Union, which backed AB 392, said, "It is a common-sense bill modeled after best practices already in place in some departments — and that we know work to reduce police killings and save lives."

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Bill Chappell is a writer and editor on the News Desk in the heart of NPR's newsroom in Washington, D.C.
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