Legislature Considering a Stack of Cop-Accountability Bills

California legislators are considering a pile of criminal justice bills this session, many aimed at increasing transparency and accountability. (CA.gov)

California legislators are considering a pile of criminal justice bills this session, many aimed at increasing transparency and accountability. (CA.gov)

By Alex Emslie
KQED

Increasing national attention on issues of use of force, transparency and inequity in the criminal justice system hasn’t been lost on California state legislators, who are pushing dozens of bills aimed at enhancing law enforcement accountability.

The California branch of the American Civil Liberties Union is following and advocating for many of them.

“The national attention on police conduct and police abuses has absolutely led to a large number of bills on this issue this year,” says Natasha Minsker, director of the recently expanded ACLU’s Sacramento-based Center for Advocacy and Policy. “What’s yet to be seen, and what we hope for, is that it actually leads to real reforms being enacted.”

That observation is a rare example of common ground between groups like the ACLU and law enforcement organizations like the California State Sheriffs’ Association, which is also keeping a close watch.

“There are certainly more bills on these topics this year,” said Cory Salzillo, the association’s legislative director. “I think it’s because of the media attention on events in other places like Ferguson and Staten Island.”

Six of the eight bills the ACLU is highlighting have been placed on either the Senate or Assembly appropriations “suspense file,” meaning the appropriations committees of either house won’t hear the bills until after the state budget is finalized. The hold is meant for high-cost legislation.

Part of the reason the bills carry big price tags, Minsker says, is that several of them are seeking better data collection — and the agencies that would be providing that data are also the ones providing the cost estimates.

“The people we’re trying to get information about, those are the people who provide the estimate of the cost,” Minsker says. “And the cost is coming back shockingly high.”

Data Collection

Assembly bills 953 and 619 by Assemblywoman Shirley Weber (D-San Diego) would greatly expand the data that state and local law enforcement agencies are required to report to the California attorney general.

AB953 updates the definition of profiling to include gender identity and would require all local law enforcement agencies to deliver quarterly reports to the attorney general on all traffic, public transportation and pedestrian stops by July 2017. Most police departments in the state collect only traffic stop data with a few identifying characteristics of the subject, such as race.

The bill would require a slew of data for every stop, including an officer’s perception of the subject’s race, ethnicity, gender, age, sexual orientation, religious affiliation, English proficiency and physical or mental disability.

The Peace Officers Research Association of California opposes AB953, arguing that officers already receive rigorous training on combating racial profiling and that police departments already collect many of the statistics called for in the bill.

“We believe the additional information required will take much more of the officer’s time and result in less service to the public,” the association’s opposition statement says.

Salzillo said the bill requires law enforcement officers to essentially guess the demographic information. The language of the bill prohibits officers from asking suspects.

“We don’t know how that works,” he said. “In an attempt to stop racial profiling, it requires officers to pay a lot more attention to race. It’s counterintuitive in that regard.”

Five similar attempts at mandating racial stop data precede AB953, going back to 1999 when then-Gov. Gray Davis vetoed a bill that would have required statewide collection of traffic stop data. But Davis required the California Highway Patrol to start noting the race of the people its officers pulled over, and many local law enforcement agencies began doing so voluntarily — with mixed results.

Weber’s AB619 calls for better bookkeeping on law enforcement use of force and would apply the standards of in-custody deaths to all fatal encounters with police. Current law requires that law enforcement or corrections agencies report details of in-custody deaths to the state attorney general within 10 days of an incident.

The bill also calls for detailed use-of-force reporting to the attorney general by 2018. Those reports would include characteristics like race, age and gender of officers and subjects in use-of-force cases. The legislation would require open reporting on everything from hand-to-hand physical strikes to gunshots.

“Data collection is the key to transparency and accountability,” the ACLU’s Minsker says. “If we think racial profiling is important, if we think police killing people is important, we need to collect data and then have conversations about how to fix it.”

AB619 has no formal opposition listed. The ACLU of California is co-sponsoring both of Weber’s bills.

Weber’s aren’t the only bills seeking to expand public safety data collection. SB601 by Sen. Loni Hancock (D-Berkeley) would require the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation to produce a “data dashboard,” publicly available on CDCR’s website. The web portal would include the following:

  • Information on CDCR staffing
  • Inmate enrollment in rehabilitation programs — with diploma and GED completion rates
  • Number of deaths, specifying homicides, suicides, unexpected deaths and expected deaths
  • Number of use-of-force incidents
  • Number of inmate appeals and their status
  • Number of inmates in administrative segregation — or solitary confinement
  • Contraband seized, quantifying cellphones and drugs
  • Number of days in lockdown
  • Budget information

Hancock’s bill would also require a report to the governor and Legislature on CDCR’s pilot case management re-entry program by July 31, 2017. Gov. Jerry Brown vetoed a similar bill in 2011, noting that the CDCR already posts much of the information.

Training

Senate bills 11 and 29 by Sen. Jim Beall (D-San Jose) would require the state’s Commission on Peace Officer Standards and Training to implement advanced training on mental health issues for California law enforcement officers. From the San Francisco Bay Area to nationwide, it’s estimated that about half of people killed by police are in psychiatric crisis.

SB11 requires 20 hours of behavioral health training at the police academies to be part of the basic requirements to become a peace officer in California. SB29 requires a 40-hour course for field training officers, who mentor recent academy graduates when they first hit the streets. The bills indicate a move toward a state mandate for specialized Crisis Intervention Training, a program some departments have already voluntarily implemented.

Several state law enforcement associations join disability rights advocacy groups in support of SB11. Fewer groups support SB29.

“There is a growing recognition among law enforcement nationwide of the need for more behavioral health training for officers,” the County Behavioral Health Directors Association of California wrote in support of SB11. “The existing California Peace Officer Standards and Training (POST) curriculum includes only 6 hours of mental health training out of a total of 664 hours of mandated training for peace officers, which is clearly not sufficient.”

The California State Sheriffs’ Association opposes both bills.

“More training for the sake of more training may not be beneficial and may come at the expense of other, more necessary training,” the association wrote in opposition. “Although we appreciate the desire to improve interactions between law enforcement and persons with mental health issues, [both bills represent] a premature, unfunded mandate that offers no guarantee of providing the appropriate training to the right officers.”

Investigations

SB227 and AB 86 are seeking, in different ways, to establish more independence in the investigations of officer-involved fatalities.

SB227 by Sen. Holly Mitchell (D-Los Angeles) would not allow grand juries to inquire into cases of potential police misconduct that resulted in the death of a suspect.

“The use of the criminal grand jury process, and the refusal to indict as occurred in Ferguson and other communities of color, has fostered an atmosphere of suspicion that threatens to compromise our justice system,” Mitchell wrote in an op-ed published in the Los Angeles Daily News. Her bill would require police use-of-force cases to be charged through a preliminary examination, in open court, rather than behind the closed doors of the grand jury.

The California District Attorneys Association opposes the bill, writing that California’s grand jury system is “decidedly different and amazingly fairer” than the system in other states.

“While there may be fundamental deficiencies in the grand jury systems of other states, we do not believe that those deficiencies exist in California to justify the outright prohibition of criminal grand juries in fatal officer-involved shootings,” the association wrote.

AB86 would require the state attorney general to appoint a special prosecutor to independently investigate killings by on-duty law enforcement officers.

The bill’s supporters and opposition reveal a stark divide. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People supports the bill.

“Police brutality has had a long history in California,” the NAACP wrote. “Following the high-profiled deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, civil rights advocates have campaigned for greater oversight of the investigation process following deaths involving law enforcement.”

But most statewide law enforcement agencies oppose the bill.

“District Attorneys have made decisions for years, and have overseen difficult cases that have been scrutinized heavily by the media and public,” the Peace Officers Research Association of California wrote. “The concern that there would be a conflict of interest between a District Attorney and officers they may work with is unfounded.”

Salzillo said the bill implied that peace officers who use deadly force are presumed guilty of a crime.

“We reject that,” he said. “In so many of these cases, the officer’s been shot at, the officer’s been threatened with a weapon. The officer is a victim in many ways.”

California’s ACLU also supports McCarty’s bill, but California ACLU director Minsker says she still wouldn’t expect many police officers to face criminal charges following fatal shootings.

“We are really encouraging folks to focus not just on prosecutions,” Minsker says, “but investigating fatal incidents where police have used force to ask, ‘What went wrong? How could we have prevented this?'”

And Many More

Among the many other law enforcement bills meandering their way through the Legislature, one would clarify California law regarding photographing and recording police on duty. Still another would scrub the term “lynching” from the state’s penal code, and several bills are vying to establish statewide rules for police body-worn cameras.

And of course, the Legislature doesn’t have the final word on these proposals. Bills that make it through both houses must still win Gov. Brown’s approval.

“We’ve had initial meetings with the governor’s staff to educate them about the bills,” Minsker says, adding that it’s difficult to predict where Brown will land on any of these issues. “At this point no red flags have been raised on these bills.”

This post was updated May 22 to add a link to existing CDCR COMPSTAT reports.

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