Elizabeth Sherwood, MPA, Staff Writer, Brief Policy Perspectives
From Ferguson to Sacramento, fatal police shootings are becoming more frequently discussed. Tensions between police and constituents, particularly in minority communities, are not new, but protests and calls for action over the recent high profile incidents of police violence are gaining momentum. The movement is also influencing policy; in April, leaders in California announced plans for a bill that would limit the use of deadly force by law enforcement.
Language of the Law
Current policy in California dictates that officers may use deadly force when they feel it is “reasonable.” However, the Police Accountability and Community Protection Act would change the language of the policy to read that the use of deadly force is only acceptable when it is “necessary.” This one word has officers, lawmakers, and citizens taking sides. While police officers and unions advocate for keeping the law as it stands, citizen groups and proponents argue that changing the policy will ultimately make society safer. Although the bill, drafted by Assemblywoman Shirley Weber of San Diego, may seem minor, it is about more than semantics.
In addition to ensuring that deadly force is a last resort in police conduct, the bill proposes that the actions of officers leading up to the act of violence should be taken into account when ruling on the necessity of the shooting. For example, many of the bill’s supporters reference the haste with which police killed 12-year-old Tamir Rice, who turned out to be holding a pellet gun, without properly investigating. The police were not indicted because their fear-induced action was deemed “reasonable”; however, many saw the lack of threat-assessment as negligent. This bill would take into account officers’ investigations and actions leading up to the use of deadly force. The ACLU released a statement in support of the measure, citing the bill’s verbiage that, “homicide by a peace officer is not justified if the officer’s gross negligence contributed to making the force ‘necessary.’” The addition of language regarding actions prior to use of deadly force would hold police officers accountable for their actions even before they pull the trigger.
Police officers are not in favor of the change. VICE News reports that at least five police unions, including the Los Angeles Police Protective League (LAPPL) and the California Peace Officers Association (CPOA), came out with statements opposing the act. The statement from the LAPPL argued that the bill “demands that officers have a Monday Morning Quarterback’s perspective before game day on Sunday.” Multiple unions in the VICE News report conveyed a similar message about the proposed change—the bill would be a roadblock to providing law enforcement services by restricting use of force in split-second decisions, leading to greater numbers of police fatalities and criminals who are not caught.
Police Killings by the Numbers
Although the officers’ reasoning that restricting use of deadly force could put police in greater danger may seem logical, opponents of the bill should consider existing data on police violence before dismissing the proposal. Mapping Police Violence, a research collaborative that explores data records of police violence from the U.S. Police Shootings Database and other crowdsourced databases, compiled jarring statistics about how frequently police use deadly force. On its website, the organization published a calendar boldly stating, “There were only 14 days in 2017 where police did not kill someone.”
The research collaborative showcases findings from the Use of Force Project, an effort to examine the relationship between use of force policies and police killings in the 100 largest U.S. city police departments. The study found that jurisdictions with similar policies, where police are required to exhaust all other options before resorting to deadly force, experience a 25 percent decrease in total police killings. Departments with multiple use of force restrictions including requiring de-escalation, implementing a use of force continuum matrix, and banning chokeholds or strongholds see fewer officers killed in the line of duty, as well. There could be more training on these kinds of policies, which require alternative methods for officers to respond before resorting to deadly force.
It seems unrealistic to say that by changing one word in one law, legislators can minimize the number of police shootings and better maintain public safety. However, according to Samuel Sinyangwe, policy analyst and cofounder of Mapping Police Violence, only four states currently require officers to exhaust all other reasonable means before using deadly force (Delaware, Iowa, Rhode Island, and Tennessee), and these states experience police killing rates 17 percent lower than the rest of the country.
The Police Accountability and Community Protection Act takes a major step forward toward police accountability in California, and could encourage other states to follow. The data show that solidifying statutory language to restrict police officers’ use of deadly force can make our streets safer. Thus, law enforcement officers should embrace this new policy rather than oppose it.
Click here for an August 2019 update on the bill’s passage.