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Bill to strengthen California police use of force rules blocked

A bill to toughen penalties for police officers who do not intervene when witnessing a fellow officer use excessive force was sidelined in the California Legislature on Thursday, a setback that supporters said is particularly frustrating given momentum this year for police reforms following nationwide outcry over the killing of George Floyd.

Assembly Bill 1022 by Assemblyman Chris Holden (D-Pasadena) would have made a member of law enforcement an accessory to a crime if the officer was found to be capable of stopping an incident of excessive force by another officer and failed to do so. The bill would have also codified a definition of “necessary” use of deadly force, going beyond a hotly debated policing law signed by Gov. Gavin Newsom last year that strengthened an earlier “reasonable” use of force standard.

“I’m still processing it,” Holden said shortly after his bill failed passage in the Senate Appropriations Committee during a biannual hearing in which bills can be shelved without a roll-call vote or any public explanation. “For God’s sake, we had the [state] Attorney General endorse this bill. He’s the top cop in the state. He saw this as a reasonable and appropriate bill.”

The legislation would have required officers to be fired if they were found to have used excessive force resulting in great bodily injury or death, or failed to intercede in such an incident. The proposed law would also have required officers to report any incident of excessive force.

Holden’s bill was among a handful of police reform measures proposed in the state Capitol this year. A bill by Assemblyman Kevin McCarty (D-Sacramento) to require the state Department of Justice to investigate all officer-involved shooting deaths of unarmed citizens passed the Senate Appropriations Committee on Thursday, as did AB 1196 by Assemblyman Mike Gipson (D-Carson) to ban the use of chokeholds by officers.

Both of those bills now face votes in the full Senate during the final days of the legislative session, which ends Aug. 31.

The same Senate committee on Thursday held AB 1599 by Assemblyman Jordan Cunningham (R-Templeton) to require investigations of officer misconduct to be completed even in the event that the officer leaves the agency.

The mixed results on police reform bills this year come after many supporters of the legislation said they believed there was momentum from weeks of protests across the country following Floyd’s death on May 25.

A video showing Floyd, a Black man, pleading “I can’t breathe” as his neck was pinned under the knee of Minneapolis Police Department Officer Derek Chauvin was seen around the world. Two autopsies concluded Floyd’s death was a homicide and Chauvin has been charged with murder. Three other officers involved in the incident — Thomas Lane, Alexander Kueng and Tou Thao — have been charged as accomplices. All four officers were fired.

Opponents of Holden’s bill, particularly law enforcement groups, said it went too far and threatened to penalize officers making split-second decisions.

“Oftentimes, when an officer is not the first, or even the second person to arrive on the scene, they will observe actions being taken with a suspect without knowing what led up to the actions they are observing,” said the Peace Officers Research Assn. of California, the state’s largest law enforcement labor organization.

Law enforcement groups also said the bill came too quickly after last year’s use of force law, Bill AB 392, which created new standards for when officers can use deadly force.

“AB 1022 would have inadvertently undone the progress made by California’s historic use-of-force legislation last year,” PORAC President Brian Marvel said in a statement. “Public safety laws, rules and regulations are incredibly complex, and we look forward to working together with our elected leaders to take a thoughtful, well-informed and holistic approach to these issues as we seek to better position California’s officers to best serve our communities.”

Like police reform bills this year, AB 392 was prompted by national protests against deadly police shootings of unarmed Black men, including Stephon Clark in 2018.

Clark was fatally shot following a chase that ended in his grandmother’s Sacramento-area backyard after police said they mistook his cellphone for a gun. The officers who shot Clark did not face criminal charges.

Holden said the Legislature has to do more to ensure police officers are held accountable. He said he will pursue legislation next year similar to his now-failed bill.

“I think it’s one thing for everyone to see what happened to George Floyd and say how awful that is, and it’s another to take steps to ensure that never happens again,” Holden said. “I’m very disappointed.”

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