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California police are condemning a deadly-force proposal they haven’t seen yet

What, to a police officer, is the difference between holding them accountable and second-guessing them?

The answer may have more to do with feeling included than with any substantive distinctions, judging by the law enforcement backlash against proposed reforms to deadly force statutes in California.

New legislation, provided in draft form to ThinkProgress by lead author Assemblymember Dr. Shirley Weber (D), would make substantial changes to how the state distinguishes between legitimate and illegitimate uses of deadly force on duty.

Police leaders from around the state called a press conference Monday to sound off against the bill, which Weber and co-sponsors announced a week earlier but have yet to formally file with legislature staff. The law enforcement critics asserted that the bill is a drastic shift from the “reasonable officer” standard of evaluating uses of deadly force.

“Holding us to an unreasonable standard,” said David Honda, chief of police in Watsonville, “that measures in hindsight a decision that is made during an emergency or critical incident will only hurt the communities we serve.”

But that doesn’t seem quite right, from a closer look at the draft bill.

The changes, on their face, seem bland. “Notwithstanding any other law, an officer may use deadly force only when such force is necessary to prevent imminent and serious bodily injury or death to the officer or a third party,” the draft language reads.

While ostensibly requiring all other tactical options to be exhausted or impractical before a cop can shoot someone, the bill’s definition of “necessary” replicates the same old judicial standards. If “given the totality of the circumstances, a reasonable officer would conclude that there was no reasonable alternative to the use of deadly force,” then the force is legitimate under the proposal.

This is not a recipe for second-guessing cops in some grandly new fashion — just a shoring up and a clarification of the same limitations on hindsight that already apply to the criminal justice system, if not in courts of public opinion. A society that gives police the power to kill must have some process for evaluating how that power gets used — and accountability mechanisms for police today often serve to undermine rather than shore up public trust, an essential tool for law enforcement.

If the bill creates any new obligations for police at all — and it arguably does not, thanks to the retention of the hypothetical analysis of a “reasonable officer” in the same circumstances — they are limited, contingent on practicality, and consistent with existing best-practices policies for law enforcement such as de-escalation training.

This would not be any grand change from the obligations theoretically incumbent on officers in such a situation even under today’s laws. They are obligated to quickly employ the training they’ve received, in combination with their instincts for reading a situation and their understanding of the policies of their department and laws of their jurisdiction, to make a rapid decision about how to engage the knife-bearer effectively and legally.

Police were nonetheless quick to portray the package as foolhardy meddling by naive hands, the kind of feel-good policy only someone who’s never stood in harm’s way could support. In blasting the bill, the police representatives at times stooped to rank hyperbole to vilify the proposal.

San Rafael Police Chief Diana Bishop, for example, raised a hypothetical situation where police encounter a man with a knife in a crowded park. “Does the officer not take action to stop any threat the man with the knife poses to those in the park because the use of deadly force is not necessary under the circumstances?” Bishop said.

In a word: no. In a few more: no, being discouraged from taking an unnecessary and lethal step does not mean being required to “not take action” at all. A menu of options where one is marked “only if necessary” is different from a menu of just one option with no others on offer. If there’s some other option available to the cop in the park with the knife-wielder, thus rendering gunplay an option but not the only option, then the officer would be required to take some other action — unless, again, a “reasonable officer” judging the “totality” of the facts at play would have also decided he had to shoot to stop the man with a knife.

The new proposal’s emphasis on de-escalation and the necessity of deadly force would change the ingredients the officers have to factor into that rapid decisionmaking under pressure, but it wouldn’t force them to perform some kind of brand new process. Such decisions are the essence of policework, and while it’s understandable that police officers might bristle when outsiders try to tell them how they should handle such duress, it is a basic thread of societal fabric that civilian powers tell those endowed with deadly power how they’re allowed to wield it.

Why the indignation, then? It may be as simple as a couple phone calls that never got made.

“We find ourselves dumbfounded that legislation of this magnitude was introduced without consulting law enforcement stakeholders,� said David Swing, head of the California Police Chiefs Association. “If legislators had come to us prior, it’s unlikely that we would be here today.�

But pleading surprise doesn’t really wash here. Weber spokesman Joe Kocurek noted that Assembly Bill 931’s provisions are already in common use at agencies around the country. Something being used by the FBI and the police agencies in Seattle, Chicago, New Orleans, and San Francisco can’t be credibly rendered as a surprise to policing experts in California.

“The policy is in line with best practices and standards recognized by academics and experts in the field, including the Police Executive Research Forum and the International Association of Chiefs of Police,” Kocurek said. “This type of policy has been implemented successfully in a number of law enforcement agencies nationwide. And where it has been implemented, there has been a reduction of deaths of both law-enforcement officers and civilians. All stakeholders, including law enforcement, will have an opportunity to shape the policy as it moves through the committee process.â€�


This post is from ThinkProgress. Click here to read the full text

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