California’s attempt to reduce police shootings, explained

Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto


Updated May 31, 2020

Civil rights advocates have long sought increased accountability for law enforcement in California, particularly in recent years, as police shootings and the Black Lives Matter movement have roiled cities nationwide. But even in a Democrat-controlled Capitol, those efforts — to make police misconduct records public, to require the release of body camera footage, to create an independent body to investigate police shootings — have historically failed amid objections from law enforcement organizations and their influential unions.

That pattern was tested last year after Sacramento police killed Stephon Clark in his grandparents’ backyard. Officers believed he was holding a gun, but it turned out to be a cell phone. Clark’s death set off huge demonstrations in the capital city and created new political momentum. In 2018, California passed laws to make police misconduct records available to the public and to require police departments to release body camera footage.

But the Legislature shelved a proposal to set a tougher legal standard to justify the use of deadly force. That idea was reintroduced this year, producing a compromise about which both sides have expressed mixed feelings. This explainer will walk you through it.

A note about the sources of information in this project: We used data from government agencies or academic research whenever possible. But the federal government does not yet have reliable data on the number of civilians police kill nationwide. For that, we turned to The Washington Post, which has been tracking police shootings since 2015. The Post’s “Fatal Force” data set is now widely used by researchers in lieu of government data.

Graphics and research assistance by Robbie Short.

Police shootings are more common in California than in most states

California has more police shootings than any other state, but it also has more people. When you account for population size across all 50 states and the District of Columbia, California’s rate of police shootings is in the middle of the pack, but higher than the national average.

… and way more common than in other large states

Only a dozen states have a population of at least 8 million people. And among those states, California’s rate of police shootings is by far the highest.

So how many people do California police kill?

Between 100 and 200 each year. California’s Department of Justice began collecting data on police use of force in 2016.

The toll is greatest on people of color

Numerous nationwide studies show that African-Americans make up a greater share of the people killed by police than they comprise in the population at large. In California, that’s also true for Latinos, who make up 39% of the state’s population but 46% of the people police killed between 2016 and 2018.

Most of the people police kill are armed

Police killings of unarmed people can generate enormous public outcry and a lot of media attention. Think of Stephon Clark in Sacramento, Oscar Grant in Oakland and Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo. But the data show that the majority of people police kill are armed with a gun or a knife. Many others are holding a toy gun.

Experts disagree whether police should shoot a suspect holding a knife. Though knives are deadly weapons that can legally justify using lethal force, Franklin Zimring, a professor at the UC Berkeley law school, argues that police should generally be prohibited from firing at suspects wielding blades. 

His book, When Police Kill, is an exhaustive look at the violence in both directions. Zimring studied six years of data on intentional killings of police and found that more than 97% of them were by gunshots. Only two officers died from knife injuries, leading Zimring to argue that police may unnecessarily kill hundreds of Americans each year who are holding knives.

… but when police kill unarmed people, Latinos and African-Americans are overrepresented

What about attacks on police?

Policing is a dangerous profession. One study found that about 10% of officers are assaulted in a typical year, and other reports have ranked police work as one of the 20 deadliest  jobs nationwide and in California

But over time, police work has actually become much safer. A recent study shows a huge decrease in police officer deaths over the last 50 years — they’re down by 70% since 1970.

What accounts for the steep drop? The study published in Criminology and Public Policy cites a few reasons: better body armor and more police wearing bullet-proof vests; advances in trauma care for officers who are injured; improved training in de-escalation and gun safety and the development of tools, such as tasers, that help police manage encounters that could become violent.

So how is California trying to reduce police shootings?

Two key bills began as rival proposals, but lawmakers tailored them to complement each other.

One remaining debate revolves around the definition of the word “feasible” in SB 230. The ACLU and other civil rights groups argue that the bill’s current definition could be interpreted to require de-escalation only when there’s no increased risk to the officer or another person. Such broad leeway, they say, could essentially let police skip de-escalation in most situations, and thus undermine AB 392’s aim of limiting deadly force.

The compromise between civil rights advocates and law enforcement

Early proposals to raise the legal standard for police to use deadly force set off a massive lobbying fight in California. Police groups argued that changing the legal standard would put officers’ lives at risk by forcing them to hesitate before firing their weapons and, perhaps, get shot first.

Lawmakers urged civil rights groups that backed the tougher standard to negotiate with law enforcement. In 2019, they eventually reached a compromise on AB 392 that contains wins for both sides.

This compromise won the support of the ACLU and several other civil rights groups, and caused major statewide law enforcement groups that had opposed the bill to go neutral. But the compromise didn’t please everyone. Black Lives Matter withdrew support for AB 392, saying it had become too weak. And several local law enforcement groups remain opposed.

The politics of police in California

Democrats have complete control of policies that come out of the state Capitol. They hold roughly three-quarters of the legislative seats and every statewide office. Even as some Democrats have pushed to change the criminal justice system, law enforcement unions have held sway in the Capitol for many years. 

Some of it is about appealing to voters — public perception of law enforcement is largely positive and politicians seek police endorsements at election time. Some of it is about relationships: at least four legislators are former cops; another is a police chaplain; others have siblings and children in law enforcement. And many lawmakers are former mayors, city council members or prosecutors who may have worked closely with law enforcement in their hometowns before being elected to the Legislature.

Law enforcement groups are also major campaign donors, which contributes to their influence in the Capitol.

What have other states done to regulate police use of force?

Supporters of California’s new deadly force standard say it will be among the nation’s toughest. But state laws on this issue are difficult to compare. Several states instruct their officers to use lethal force only when “necessary.” But the meaning of “necessary” varies — California doesn’t even define the term. Some states are more specifically restrictive.

Listen to Force Of Law

To learn more about California’s attempt to reduce police shootings, please subscribe to the Force Of Law podcast. It features stories from Californians living in the aftermath of deadly shootings, police officers who face harrowing split-second decisions and lawmakers crafting new state policy on the use of deadly force. In this narrative series, CalMatters reporter Laurel Rosenhall follows the development of new state laws in the Capitol, blending intimate stories with political insights.

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