California police reform push could shift the national conversation

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Police unions that at one time would have crushed the legislative effort are now staying out of the fray.

Supporters of the proposals say they are determined to convert a historic surge of advocacy into enduring change — and success in California could augur similar victories around the country, putting pressure on governors and legislatures to take action. They say they need to see advances in California, where polls show residents support the Black Lives Matter by a more than 2-to-1 margin, before the momentum is lost.

“We are afraid there may be a waning of political will if we don’t do anything significant this year, in this moment,” said ACLU lobbyist Dennis Cuevas-Romero, whose group has long pushed for policing changes.

The bills up for debate in Sacramento would rewrite rules around how police officers manage protests, when they must disclose misconduct and, most critically, what violations could lead the state to strip officers of their certification or penalize them for excessive use of force. One bill would go as far as requiring officers to physically restrain colleagues who step out of line.

The combined weight of the legislation would amount to an unprecedented law enforcement overhaul in the nation’s most populous state, where decades of tough-on-crime politics have given way to ambitious sentencing reductions under Democratic control in the state Capitol.

Major legislative actions in California regularly inspire similar moves in statehouses around the country — a function of the state’s population size and influence.

A sweeping worker classification bill spurred similar state measures, while a data privacy law preceded pushes in more than a dozen other states. And California accelerated a national movement against cash bail in 2019, although its ban faces a referendum in November.

Since Floyd’s death on May 25 in Minneapolis, New York enacted long-sought changes to police misconduct disclosure requirements and Colorado passed a landmark bill to end qualified immunity, a legal shield for officers that has become a national target for reform. Virginia convened a special session this week focused on policing.

But the outcome in California this month will test the reform movement’s durability — and if Democrat-dominated California cannot succeed, advocates say, that will send a discouraging signal about law enforcement’s enduring power to dilute or derail reforms.

“If we can’t do it here, that begs the question: can Democrats do this? Are Democrats serious about reforming policing?” said Kate Chatfield, a senior policy adviser at the Justice Collaborative, a policing reform organization. “Voters are incredibly supportive of this, so if our electeds can’t get this done, we need some new electeds.”

No bill is a bigger bellwether than a yearsold proposal that the state attorney general independently review any police killing at the request of local officials.

The first time Assemblymember Kevin McCarty (D-Sacramento) tried to take police slaying probes out of the hands of district attorneys, his effort collapsed against a wall of opposition from law enforcement, who have tight relationships with prosecutors.

But dozens of Assembly Democrats comprising a majority of the caucus now support his current version, including police-aligned moderates. Democratic California Sen. Kamala Harris did not support McCarty’s proposal as state attorney general, but the presumptive vice presidential nominee now advocates a national version of the policy.

And California’s powerful law enforcement groups are not all battling back.

“I was astounded, because the response I got five years ago was the polar opposite,” said McCarty, who’s leading the Legislative Black Caucus’ approach on police changes.

Floyd’s death has already sparked changes within police departments across the state, including several that have banned the use of carotid restraints that restrict an individual’s blood and airflow.

Democrats will still face a powerful law enforcement lobby that has blocked bills in the past and holds sway among some moderates. And time is short in the Capitol, with less than two weeks left to broker complicated changes in police rules during a condensed session that was supposed to focus almost entirely on coronavirus legislation.

Eric Nunez, president of the California Police Chiefs Association and chief of the Los Alamitos Police Department, said that he understands the legislative sense of urgency, but he’s concerned that hastily crafted legislation will create more questions than answers for officers in the field.

He said that prior to the state shutting down in March in response to the pandemic, CPCA was tracking eight policing bills, a number he called manageable. After Floyd’s death in May, that number had jumped to 25 bills.

“It’s just not, it’s not conducive to really doing all the research, all the back and forth that has to occur to hammer out this language,” Nunez said. “And I don’t know where it’s all going, but those are the things that we’re concerned about, the structural impediments from Covid-19 and then the urgency because of the murder of George Floyd.”

Even before Floyd’s death, shifting public sentiment had brought law enforcement groups like CPCA to the negotiating table.

After opposing an attempt to raise California’s standard for when peace officers can use lethal force, law enforcement worked last year on landmark legislation that established new use-of-force and officer training policies.

“Law enforcement clearly saw the tide change,” said Assemblymember Tim Grayson (D-Concord), one of the co-sponsors of McCarty’s bill.

Those changing dynamics have recruited some unlikely allies to the cause — Grayson among them. He was formerly a Republican and a police chaplain, a template for the type of centrist Democrat who might have been reluctant to imperil his reelection by antagonizing law enforcement.

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