Good work on new standard for police using lethal force

Fewer people may be killed by police in California in the future, thanks to hard-fought legislation signed Monday by Governor Gavin Newsom.

That’s a nice goal. Time will tell if it becomes reality.

Law enforcement officers throughout California are acutely aware of Assembly Bill 392, which will allow them to open fire “only when necessary in defense of human life.” That’s tighter than the previous standard — whenever an officer felt that using lethal force was reasonable — and represents the most progressive deadly force policy in the nation.

This achievement was anything but easy.

Civil rights activists long have argued that the old standard, based on 1872 law, tilted in favor of police judgment, excusing too many deaths of suspects, particularly people of color. The final straw came in March 2018, when Sacramento police shot and killed Stephon Clark in his grandmother’s back yard, thinking the cell phone he held was a gun. That prompted Shirley Weber, a Democratic assemblywoman from San Diego, to write AB 392, which became a cause célèbre for civil rights groups.


Law enforcement groups, fearing the bill would lead to officers second-guessing themselves and expose them to more danger, recruited Sen. Anna Caballero — a Salinas Democrat whose district stretches into Stanislaus County — to carry rival legislation, Senate Bill 230, focused on requiring better training for all officers.

We applauded when lawmakers in April required both sides to negotiate on both bills, effectively forcing compromise. It seemed the only path to success for a topic so polarizing, yet so important.

Officers throughout California killed 172 people in 2017, including Modesto’s Evin Olsen Yadegar, who had bipolar disorder and likely was in mental crisis when a Stanislaus County deputy fired into her car after a slow-speed chase from Salida to Ripon. It’s possible that this tragedy — for the victim and her family, as well as for the deputy, who faces trial on a charge of voluntary manslaughter, and his family— might have turned out differently under the new rules.

Still on the table is Caballero’s SB 230, which would give officers new tools, including training in “de-escalation tactics, interacting with vulnerable populations and alternatives to use of deadly force,” according to the Peace Officers Research Association of California, the state’s largest law enforcement group. Having passed in the Senate, the bill must wind through the Assembly by the end of September.

Caballero’s bill would require the most robust training in the nation for officers, who don’t always get the help they need because of local funding limits; if passed, all departments would have to comply. That makes sense, as long as SB 230 doesn’t water down what leaders finally accomplished Monday with AB 392, which becomes law Jan. 1.

Some civil rights activists walked away from AB 392 when a compromise erased the proposal that officers must exhaust every alternative before opening fire on a suspect. These activists should recognize that compromise often is the only way to get something significant done in Sacramento, and they should be proud their efforts have culminated in rules more likely to protect the innocent than any other in the United States.