In California, Agreement on New Rules for When Police Can Use Deadly Force

By Ben Adler, NPR

Civil rights advocates and law enforcement groups have reached an agreement in the California legislature on new rules for when police can use deadly force.

California Highway Patrol officers block an interstate entrance as protesters march. Police use of deadly force became a focus for advocates in California after the district attorney declined to prosecute the officers who fatally shot Stephon Clark, an unarmed black man whose death sparked demonstrations in the state and across the country.  Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

California Highway Patrol officers block an interstate entrance as protesters march. Police use of deadly force became a focus for advocates in California after the district attorney declined to prosecute the officers who fatally shot Stephon Clark, an unarmed black man whose death sparked demonstrations in the state and across the country.

Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

The issue has been a focus for many social justice advocates in California this spring after Sacramento's district attorney declined to prosecute the officers who fatally shot Stephon Clark, an unarmed black man whose death sparked headlines and demonstrations across the country.

Under the agreement made public Thursday, officers will be able to use lethal force only when it is "necessary" and if there are no other options.

That's widely viewed as higher than the existing legal standard: that the use of deadly force is legal if a "reasonable" officer would have acted similarly in that situation.

But the bill language leaves out a specific definition of "necessary," which would leave interpretation up to the legal system to figure out case by case.

The measure is now expected to pass the assembly before next week.

"We can now move a policy forward that will save lives and change the culture of policing in California," Assemblywoman Shirley Weber, who introduced the bill, wrote in a statement.

Law enforcement groups have dropped their opposition and are now neutral on the bill. "We appreciate your consideration of our concerns and thank you and your staff for working with CPCA on this critical issue," the California Police Chiefs Association wrote in a letter to Weber on Thursday.

The American Civil Liberties Union, a leading advocate that helped negotiate the bill, praised the agreement. "If this bill passes and is signed by the governor, California will have one of the most restrictive use-of-force laws in the nation — if not the most restrictive," said the ACLU's Lizzie Buchen.

The proposed law also states that an officer's conduct leading up to the shooting will be considered — but so too will the suspect's behavior. And there's language in the bill that requires police to use other alternatives, such as de-escalation or "less lethal" options, before using deadly force. But these requirements are a statement of intent, not a specific checklist.

"The general idea is, we want the police to see if they can avoid the fatal encounter," said Robert Weisberg, a professor of criminal law at Stanford Law School.

He says the agreement struck by the two sides represents the middle ground he suspected they would inevitably reach.

He added that defining the new "necessary" legal standard "is going to be very, very difficult for the courts" — and for officers, too.

For instance, an officer may second-guess their decision-making. "'If I let this person go, what is the risk?'" Weisberg said of an officer's thought process. "'Sure, I'm legally allowed to restrain him, and I might be worried that he might commit another crime. But let's do a tradeoff here. If I persist in the arrest, this may escalate into something fatal.'"

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