New California Law Says Police Should Kill Only When 'Necessary'

New California Law Says Police Should Kill Only When 'Necessary'

By: Bill Chappell, NPR


California's new lethal force bill "changes the culture of policing," Assemblywoman Shirley Weber said on Monday. She's seen here in April, alongside Assemblyman Kevin McCarty, the bill's co-author.

Rich Pedroncelli/AP


Statewide- Police officers in California should only use lethal force when it's a "necessary" response to a threat — not merely an "objectively reasonable" one — under a new law that Gov. Gavin Newsom signed Monday. Under the tighter standard, deadly force will be legal only in cases where there are no other options.

"I'm ready to sign this damn thing," Newsom told the crowd at a signing ceremony shortly before noon (local time) Monday. But before he did that, he invited the family and loved ones of people who advocated for the bill to stand alongside him.

"I would be honored if you would join us up on stage," Newsom said.

With dozens of people standing around him, the governor said he hopes the law, which will take effect in January, will become an example for other states.

"As California goes, so goes the rest of the United States of America," Newsom said. "And we are doing something today that stretches the boundaries of possibility and sends a message to people all across this country, that they can do more."

The law emerged from a push for new rules in response to police killings of unarmed black men such as Stephon Clark, who was shot last year after a police chase that ended in his grandmother's backyard. The officers in that shooting said they believed Clark had a gun; he was found to have been holding a cellphone, and prosecutors said in March that the officers would not face criminal charges.


The law reflects a compromise between civil rights advocates who say it will save lives and law enforcement groups that want more clarity on the use of force — but do not want to undermine legal protections for officers.

"The whole debate boils down to two words: necessary and reasonable," Ben Adler of Capital Public Radio reports. "Right now, deadly force is justified if a reasonable officer would have acted similarly in that situation. So in other words, what a typical officer would have done based on his or her training. When the law takes effect in January, that standard will change to when the officer reasonable reasonably believes deadly force is necessary."

But Adler also notes that the new law mostly avoids offering a specific definition of "necessary" — a move that is widely seen as leaving the interpretation up to the courts, where judges will weigh what is "necessary" in the context of officers' use of force.

Assemblymember Shirley Weber (D–San Diego) is the lawmaker who introduced the bill, AB 392. When it was finally approved last month, Weber said she was proud of her colleagues.


"Significant change is never easy, but those who voted today looked to their conscience and found the courage to do the right thing for California," Weber said. She added, "I have to thank the families who have lost loved ones to police violence. They have been the energy and the moral compass for making this possible."

Weber said the law will boost the public's trust in the police and protect the sanctity of life in all communities. On Monday, she said the bill "basically changes the culture of policing in California."

The law was approved with bipartisan support, backed by Newsom and leaders in the Legislature. Along the way, it was also tempered to allay concerns raised by police associations — and those compromises have prompted criticisms that the new law doesn't go far enough in mandating change.

The changes prompted the Black Lives Matter movement, an early sponsor of the bill, to withdraw its support.

"Unfortunately, in efforts to get law enforcement to lift their opposition, the bill was so significantly amended that it is no longer the kind of meaningful legislation we can support," said BLM's Melina Abdullah, a co-founder of its Los Angeles chapter.

The group also criticized the pairing of the new law with a separate bill that sends more money to police budgets. That bill, SB 230, calls for more training for officers and more clarity about the legal standards for the use of force. And its backers note that it also requires police agencies to adopt policies on deescalation tactics and response proportionality, in addition to rules about non-lethal alternatives and rendering medical aid.

The American Civil Liberties Union, which backed AB 392, said, "It is a common-sense bill modeled after best practices already in place in some departments — and that we know work to reduce police killings and save lives."

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