Challenges To Passing Meaningful Police Accountability Legislation

On episode 26 of The Breakdown, The North Star CEO Shaun King uplifts the recent legislative work of Black Lives Matter and coalition groups in helping to bring transparency to police investigations. In 2018, the California legislature passed SB 1421, which authorizes public access to documents regarding police misconduct in use of force, sexual assault, and dishonesty. The “Right to Know” bill was the first piece of legislation co-sponsored by chapters of the Black Lives Matter Global Network.

Initially, BLM-California also signed on to co-sponsor Assembly Bill 931, a police accountability bill written in the aftermath of the murder of #StephonClark by Sacramento police. Officers killed Stephon in his grandmother’s backyard, claiming to have mistaken his cell phone for a gun; the district attorney declined to charge the killers. Assemblymembers Dr. Shirley Weber (D-San Diego) and Kevin McCarty (D-Sacramento) introduced 931 as “Stephon’s Law” to change standards related to use of force and to prevent fatal shootings by police. As the bill went through the political process, BLM became disillusioned and ultimately pulled out when an additional $25 million for “training” was guaranteed to law enforcement as a part of the negotiations with police associations. AB 931 ultimately failed, and police received the $25 million nonetheless.

This legislative year, Weber’s strong vision and noble intentions introduced a new and stronger police accountability bill and invited BLM along with some of the most progressive organizations in the state to co-sponsor. Assembly Bill 392, The California Act to Save Lives, aimed to do three things: 1) change the police use-of-force standard from “reasonable” to “necessary,” 2) require de-escalation tactics, and 3) provide criminal liability for officers who violate. However, where bills start and where they end are two different things, especially when lawmakers negotiate with police associations.

Grassroots action drove the effort to pass AB 392, ensuring that work on the ground and wide platform support informed the legislation.

For months, BLM and a coalition of 12 co-sponsoring organizations worked closely with Assemblywoman Weber’s office. These groups held weekly co-sponsor calls, organized lobby visits to legislators, engaged with media, built community support, and arranged four separate bus trips to Sacramento which hundreds of directly-impacted families and community attended. A few courageous labor unions, the California Faculty Association and United Domestic Workers, also jumped in. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) positioned themselves at the center of the co-sponsors coalition, as the largest nonprofit with the greatest resources and capacity.

BLM pushed campaigns that connected some of the most egregious murders by police to the lack of a necessary standard. Examples of #GrecharioMack, #KishaMichael, #ChristianEscobedo, #ChristopherDeandreMitchell, #EricRivera, #KennethRossJr, #RedelJones, #StephonClark, #SahleemTindle, and other recent police murders solidified under simple message: if AB 392 had been law in [the year they were murdered], [insert name] might still be alive. Families offered testimony at legislative hearings, made media appearances, participated in public forums, and visited lawmakers. Celebrities and influencers contributed support, including Aloe Blacc, Deon Cole, Vic Mensa, and Maya Jupiter; actor Kendrick Sampson leading much of the organizing under his new #BLDPWR effort.

As AB 392 made its way through the legislative process, police associations mounted a serious counter-campaign. They introduced an opposing bill, SB 230, authored by state Senator Anna Caballero (D-Salinas). Under the guise of police reform, “[t]he real purpose of SB 230 is to undermine AB 392.” As recently as May 13, 2019, the Police Officers Research Association of California (PORAC) — the largest statewide police association in the nation — made “defeating 392 and ensuring the success of 230” one of their “top priorities.” Despite the powerful opposition, the Weber/grassroots coalition was winning. On April 23, hundreds of families and organizers descended on Sacramento as SB 230 went before the Senate Public Safety Committee. The crowd spilled out of the hearing room and filled the hallway. The substance of SB 230 was stripped and was all but defeated when lawmakers tied its fate to the passage of AB 392. The coalition celebrated the victory and pressed ahead to pass AB 392.

What was clear to many, especially grassroots organizers and families, is that police associations actively sought to challenge the momentum of what we perceived as “our bill” because they have an unbreakable hold on many lawmakers — perhaps the majority of them.

As 392 headed for the assembly floor, members proposed peremptory amendments and attempted to strike deals. First, the explicit “necessary” standard was deleted, leaving it up to courts for interpretation; co-sponsors begrudgingly agreed that this was a worthy compromise. Additional amendments were made to get police associations to withdraw their opposition, gain support from the governor, and for Assembly and Senate leaders to sign on as co-sponsors. Much of the statutory language was moved to “intent,” the de-escalation requirement was deleted, and criminal liability in cases of criminal negligence was removed.

A final amendment was agreed upon — the only one introduced by police associations rather than being self-imposed. The amendment defined a “necessary” standard as when “an officer reasonably believes, based on the totality of the circumstances, that deadly force is necessary to defend against an imminent threat of death or serious bodily injury to the officer or to another person,” according to the Sacramento Bee. As each of the major inclusions of AB 392 took hits, SB 230, quietly made pro-police-paraded-as-community-reform amendments, including new funding for police for “training.” This is in addition to the $25 million received last year, and the increase proposed in the governor’s budget. The negotiations included the passage of AB 392 and SB 230 as a package, rather than being tethered in one direction.

A grassroots analysis of the bills views SB 230 as a piece of police-initiated legislation that seeks to siphon an even greater share of the state’s budget to policing units. AB 392, which began as one of the strongest police reform measures on record, has been relegated to loosely defined intentions that will only measure the legitimacy of police use of force after the fact, through litigation that leaves power in the hands of judges who have rarely sided with the community over the police. While there is a deep desire for a “win” by progressive legislators and organizations, the limits of any perceived victory are apparent with police associations going “neutral” on the bill.

BLM and Silicon Valley De-Bug, two of the AB 392’s original co-sponsors that work closely with directly-impacted families, have withdrawn their support. While neither organization is opposing the amended bill, both recognize that it is no longer the same meaningful legislation. In no other area is permission sought from those entities that require regulation. BLM co-founder Patrisse Cullors noted her frustration with the undue influence of police associations and called for pushback.

“Time and time again,” Patrisse Cullors told The North Star, “police show that they are not willing to hold themselves accountable. We have got to stand up and stop looking for them to sign off on accountability measures.”

As families and organizations remain hopeful that AB 392 will offer reprieve from police violence in a state with the 13th most officer involved fatal shootings that leads the nation in the killing of its residents by police, two things become strikingly clear: 1) meaningful police reform legislation will come only when police associations are no longer permitted to dictate what those measures look like, and 2) work must not be limited to legislation; protest and grassroots organizing remain necessary tools. Both require courage and investment on the part of lawmakers and communities.

Lawmakers must cease kowtowing to police in efforts to curry favor and campaign contributions and communities must hold elected officials accountable when they place police special interests ahead of their constituents. Finally, communities must refuse to put all of their eggs in legislative baskets.

Shaun King was right. The passage of SB 1421 was a major victory for Black Lives Matter, and the original version of AB 392 held similar promise, but they are not the only victories. The larger victory is through the building of a movement that picks up the mantle of Black freedom struggle. Some of that manifests in tangible ways, including the passage of legislation, the firing of murderous police, and the ousting of problematic officials. Other victories are beyond measure: the honoring of those whose lives have been stolen by police, stepping into a new iteration of Black freedom struggle, and the awakening of our people to our own power.

About the Author

Melina Abdullah is a senior writer for The North Star and professor and chair of Pan-African Studies at California State University, Los Angeles. She was appointed to the Los Angeles County Human Relations Commission in 2014 and is a recognized expert on race, gender, class, and social movements. Abdullah is the author of numerous articles and book chapters, with subjects ranging from political coalition building to womanist mothering.