California Introduces Legislation That Could Curb Killings by Police

Kristina Roth, Senior Program Officer for Criminal Justice Programs, Amnesty International USA

Last month we mourned the loss of Stephon Clark a 22 year-old unarmed black man that was shot and killed by police in his own back yard in Sacramento, California. Police fired 20 shots, hitting him eight times, presuming that he had a weapon. In reality, the only item he was caring was his cell phone.

This pain is part of a pattern all too familiar to black and brown communities across the US and throughout the Americas of families losing their loved ones at the hands of police. Last year according to the Washington Post, police shot and killed 987 people and according to Mapping Police Violence there were only 14 days in all of 2017 where police did not kill someone. These rampant killings by police and violence towards residents have gone on for far too long.

Many people are not taking these killings lightly. In 2016 Colin Kaepernick, then quarterback of the San Francisco 49ers, started taking a knee during the National Anthem to protest these killings by police. Once these acts of solidarity caught on, Kaepernick was unable to sign a contract with any team unless he vowed to stop this protest. Over the weekend Amnesty International celebrated him for acting on his conscience and speaking out against these gross violations of human rights by honoring Colin Kaepernick with Amnesty International’s Ambassador of Conscience Award for 2018. We all have the right to freedom from discrimination, the right to equal protection of the law, the right to security of the person, and the right to life and we thank Colin Kaepernick for recognizing these rights.

In 2015 Amnesty International released a report, Deadly Force: Police use of Lethal Force in the United States, finding that every state’s statute in the US fails to meet international standards on use of lethal force by law enforcement.

On April 16, in response to the Stephon Clark shooting, California State Assembly member Shirley Weber also decided enough was enough. She worked with Assemblymember Kevin McCarty and the family of Stephon Clark to introduce a bill, AB 931 to help save lives and restrict the law permitting the use of lethal force by police. Amnesty International has previously documented that California’s use of lethal force statute is far too permissive and does not even meet the lower threshold of U.S. constitutional standards, let alone international standards on when lethal force is justified — resulting in far too many instances when police use lethal force without any amount of accountability. While AB 931 will not bring the state’s use of lethal force statute into line with international law and standards on the use of lethal force, it is a significant step to restrict the scope of when police have legal authority to use lethal force by replacing the current “objectively reasonable” standard to only in those instances where lethal force is “necessary”, in addition to requiring police to utilize de-escalation tactics or use less lethal force before resorting to lethal force where practicable.

Amnesty supports AB 931 and will work to see that this bill and more efforts like it to restrict the use of lethal force around the country are brought to the public conscience. We cannot leave families and communities coping with their loss to solve this problem alone. We must not let complacency to the unlawful use of lethal force by police prevail, as thousands of lives are cut short in the US by the people sworn to protect us. We must work together to change every state’s laws governing the use of lethal force so that impacted families and communities, like the Clarks and the Sacramento community, can obtain accountability when officers exceed what is permitted under the law.

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