Stanislaus law-enforcement leaders speak out on proposed lethal-force legislation

From left: Modesto police Chief Galen Carroll, Stanislaus County Sheriff Adam Christianson, and Turlock Chief Nino Amirfar
From left: Modesto police Chief Galen Carroll, Stanislaus County Sheriff Adam Christianson, and Turlock Chief Nino Amirfar

Law enforcement leaders in and around Stanislaus County are speaking out against newly introduced legislation that would change the way police are allowed to use deadly force in California.

Assembly Bill 931 would tighten the state standard for police use of deadly force from "reasonable" to “necessary,” meaning when there are no alternatives for the officer to consider.

Several area police departments, including those in Oakdale, Newman, Manteca, Escalon and Gustine, have shared on their Facebook pages a message from the California Police Chiefs Association. It reads, in part, "We are concerned about the repercussions of this change for public safety. If our officers cannot respond to life-and-death situations until backup arrives or are forced to employ a checklist during rapidly advancing and extraordinarily dangerous situations, ultimately everyone involved is placed at a higher risk."

Though their departments have not shared the message, Modesto police Chief Galen Carroll, Stanislaus County Sheriff Adam Christianson and Turlock Chief Nino Amirfar said they agree with the sentiment.

"The Supreme Court ruled on use of force long ago," Carroll told The Bee in an email, "and even with the proposed legislation, who decides the force is the last resort? The officer facing the situation? Attorneys? Activists?

"Officers don’t come to work wanting to use force in our community, much less discharge their firearms. The proposed legislation is a knee-jerk, politically feel-good piece that will not solve the very difficult split-second decisions officers make in very high-stress conditions."

The sheriff said the 1989 U.S. Supreme Court ruling on Graham v. Connor 490 US 386 is law enforcement’s objective-reasonableness standard when it comes to any use of force. "Our peace officers are well trained and highly qualified," Christianson said via email. "Crucifying them in the Court of Public Opinion without knowing all of the facts and circumstances is simply irresponsible. "

Amirfar said the content of the proposed legislation has not been made completely available for review, but it's his understanding it would significantly impact law enforcement's ability to protect the community from serious injury or death. "As an example, the active-shooter call will require officers to wait for backup, or try to initiate an attempt to de-escalate prior to using deadly force," he wrote in an email. "These are very difficult situations that evolve in mere seconds."

The Turlock chief also spoke to the issue of training. Numerous scenarios are used to expose officers to a great variety of situations, he said, "in order to help them when that high-stress immediate and critical situation comes into reality."

Christianson, a member and past president of the California State Sheriffs’ Association, said Tuesday that the group has not taken a position on AB 931 "because we have not seen any type of language outside of the author’s press release. We just received a copy of the draft legislation yesterday. We will be examining and discussing."

At a news conference Monday in Sacramento, California Police Chiefs Association President David Swing said, “We find ourselves dumbfounded that legislation of this magnitude was introduced without consulting law enforcement stakeholders."

Democratic Assembly members Shirley Weber of San Diego and Kevin McCarty of Sacramento announced AB 931 last week, following the March shooting of Stephon Clark in south Sacramento.

Demonstrators calling for the indictment of two Sacramento police officers who shot and killed Stephon Clark pass Sacramento City Hall as they march through downtown on April 4, 2018. Clark, who was unarmed, was shot and killed by Sacramento police officers on March 18. Rich Pedroncelli Associated Press

Clark, 22, was shot after being chased into his grandmother’s backyard by two officers responding to reports of a man breaking car windows. Police said the officers thought Clark had a gun; after the shooting, they determined he was holding a cell phone.

Not speaking specifically to the Clark shooting, Carroll said, "Whether you’re a police officer, an attorney, or any other profession, reviewing an incident using hindsight and information that you did not have initially would or could always change your decisions. That is why the Supreme Court holds that force should be judged by a reasonable officer using information at the time of the incident."

Christianson added, "It’s disappointing that our elected officials choose to exploit tragedy, without the benefit of knowing all of the facts or at least waiting until a detailed and thorough investigation is complete."

Comments on local law enforcement's Facebook pages were overwhelmingly in support of the departments. On Oakdale's site, Michelle Garber said, "Maybe prior to engaging, the suspect should be required to fill out a 'field questionnaire' in order to determine the suspect's state of mind and intentions. That would make about as much sense as this ridiculousness."

But a few people shared different thoughts, like Sheena Robinson on the Manteca page: "The problem is these days police are not protecting and serving. You really can't deny the fact that an overwhelming number of young African-American men have been murdered by the hands of police officers ... something has to be done."

The Sacramento Bee contributed to this report.