SACRAMENTO — Several lawmakers and the family of a 22-year-old unarmed black man who was fatally shot by police proposed Tuesday that California become the first state to significantly restrict when officers can open fire.
The legislation would change the standard from using "reasonable force" to "necessary force."
That means officers would be allowed to shoot only if "there were no other reasonable alternatives to the use of deadly force" to prevent imminent serious injury or death, said Lizzie Buchen, legislative advocate for the American Civil Liberties Union, which is among the groups behind the measure.
"We need to ensure that our state policy governing the use of deadly force stresses the sanctity of human life and is only used when necessary," said Assemblywoman Shirley Weber, a San Diego Democrat who introduced the bill. "Deadly force can be used, but only when it is completely necessary."
The goal is to encourage officers to try to defuse confrontations or use less deadly weapons, said Democratic Assemblyman Kevin McCarty of Sacramento, who is co-authoring the legislation.
"We should no longer be the target practice or victims of a shoot first, ask questions later police force," said Assemblyman Chris Holden, chairman of the Legislative Black Caucus.
California's current standard makes it rare for officers to be charged after a shooting and rarer still for them to be convicted. Frequently it's because of the doctrine of "reasonable fear." If prosecutors or jurors believe that officers have a reason to fear for their safety, they can use deadly force.
The tougher proposed standard could require officers to delay confronting a suspect they fear may be armed until backup arrives or force police to give explicit verbal warnings that suspects will be killed unless they drop the weapon," said Buchen of the ACLU.
The proposal would open officers who don't follow the stricter rules to discipline or firing, sometimes even criminal charges.
But some in law enforcement called the proposal irresponsible and unworkable.
Officers already use deadly force only when necessary and are taught to try to defuse dangerous situations first when possible, said Ed Obayashi, a Plumas County sheriff's deputy and special prosecutor who trains officers and testifies in court on police use of force.
Tinkering with legal protections for police could make it more difficult to hire officers and be dangerous because they may hesitate when confronting an armed suspect, threatening themselves and bystanders, Obayashi said.
The Peace Officers Research Association of California, which is the largest law enforcement organization in California, released a statement Tuesday calling the proposed changes a "dangerous rush to judgment."
"We are concerned that this reactionary legislation will handcuff peace officers and their abilities to keep communities safe," according to the statement. "Uses of force incidents occur quickly, and while we have always supported greater training and body cameras, this legislation takes a dangerous new step."
Spokesmen for the California Police Chiefs Association and California State Sheriffs' Association said they had not seen the proposal and could not comment.
Weber, who heads a public safety oversight committee, said she hopes the recent heavily publicized string of police shootings of minority suspects and mass protests over last month's death of Stephon Clark will be enough to overcome any law enforcement resistance.
Two Sacramento officers chased Clark, who was suspected of breaking into cars, into his grandparents' darkened backyard and opened fire within seconds and without identifying themselves as police because they said they thought he had a gun. Investigators found only a cellphone.