‘Please Give Us Justice’: New California Law Aims to Hold Police Accountable
By Safiya Charles, The Nation
When Sacramento police shot dead Stephon Clark on March 18, he was the 51st black man killed by cops in 2018. (An additional 15 have been killed since.) Officers Terrence Mercadal and Jared Robinet fired 20 bullets, seven of them hitting Clark in his back and side according to an independent autopsy conducted by his family. (The official police autopsy report released May 1 showed only three bullets entering his back.) The 22-year-old died in his grandmother’s backyard clutching a cellphone that officers had misidentified as a gun.
Since his death, which was captured on video, activists across California have been demanding justice and accountability. Protesters have disrupted traffic, blocked access to Sacramento’s multimillion dollar stadium, and, for the past month, rallied at District Attorney Anne Marie Schubert’s officethree times a week, prompting the prosecutor’s office to install a temporary 10-foot fence.
Despite this pressure from demonstrators, state courts are likely to side with the police. If precedent holds, landing a conviction against the officers will be virtually impossible. The Supreme Court has ruled that cops can’t be held criminally liable for shooting a suspect if they legitimately feared for their lives when they pulled the trigger—even if they misjudged the threat. In 2016, the Los Angeles Times reported that police in six southern California counties had shot more than 2,000 people since 2004, yielding only a single prosecution. The officer in that case was later acquitted.
Most often, family members are left holding questions that may never be answered. At a press conference, Sequita Thompson, Clark’s grandmother, tendered an emotional plea: “I just want justice for my grandson and for my daughter. Please give us justice.”
In response to the public uproar, Democratic lawmakers Shirley Weber and Kevin McCarty announced a “first of its kind” bill in California that could raise accountability standards statewide by implementing stricter guidelines governing how and when officers may use lethal force. The legislation is aimed at making it easier to bring cases against law enforcement.
The Police Accountability and Community Protection Act (AB-931) would raise the current guideline from “reasonable force” to “necessary force,” requiring officers take deadly action “only when it is necessary to prevent imminent and serious bodily injury or death” and if, given all circumstances, there was no reasonable alternative. Assemblymember Weber said lawmakers must ensure the state’s policy “stresses the sanctity of human life.”
According to UCLA law professor Joanna Schwartz the current standard of “reasonable force” affords police too much discretion. The language of the 1989 Supreme Court decision in Graham v. Connor, which forms the basis of many police departments’ policies, has been interpreted to look at use of force in the split second it was delivered—not the totality of circumstances or whether it was necessary.
Schwartz used the example of a suspect who has been pulled over for a traffic stop and has fled his vehicle. The officer gets out of their car and pursues the suspect down an alley, because they think he’s holding a weapon; the officer shoots and kills the suspect. Under Graham v. Connor, many courts would find the officer’s actions “reasonable.” “That standard doesn’t give officers enough guidance on when that force is appropriate,” she told me.
If California were to raise its standard to “necessary force,” a court might question if it was necessary for the officer to pursue the subject into the alley or if the person had other ways of assessing the situation that might not have required lethal force—like creating a perimeter of vehicles or calling back-up.
Right now, the Sacramento Police Department’s use-of-force policy is built on the state’s standard that advises officers use reasonable force to effect arrest, prevent escape, or overcome resistance if they have reasonable cause to believe a person has committed a public offense. They are under no obligation to retreat or abandon pursuit.
AB-931 would attempt to make California law less ambiguous by requiring that police officers exhaust all other options—verbal persuasion, de-escalation, or other nonlethal methods—before attempting lethal force.