Let us Live: The Time is Now for California to Restrict Police use of Lethal Force

By Kristina Roth, Senior Program Officer, Criminal Justice Program, Amnesty International USA

In March 2018, Stephon Clark was killed in his grandmother’s backyard by two police officers from the Sacramento Police Department. Body camera footage confirms that he was unarmed, holding only a cell phone. Nevertheless, the police shot at him 20 times — with many of these gunshots striking Stephon in the back as he ran away in fear for his life.

His death sparked outrage, leading to protests across the country as people mourned the death of yet another unarmed black man at the hands of police. It also led to the introduction of legislation that could bring California significantly closer to international legal standards when it comes to the use of lethal force by law enforcement. This bill would enshrine “respect for the dignity and sanctity of every human life” into the state’s law.

It should be common sense that lethal force should be an absolute last resort and only when faced with an imminent threat of death or serious injury, and only after the officer attempts to deescalate situations with other less harmful means such as speaking to the people whom they are sworn to serve and protect, rather than quickly resorting to force and violence. This is a critical element of international standards for police use of lethal force. And yet, not one state in the US has laws that meet this simple framework.

California Assembly Bill 931 would take steps to meet that requirement. It would only allow police to use lethal force if there were no alternatives available and only if their lives or the lives of others were threatened. Law enforcement officers would also be obligated to seek to deescalate situations before pulling out their guns and would be prevented from using lethal force to recapture felons who have escaped or gain custody of a suspected felon running away from police, when an officer assesses no probable cause that those individuals pose an immediate threat of death or serious bodily injury to the officer or others.

As it is now, it is extremely difficult to hold officers to account when an unarmed person is killed. Families and communities deserve better from those that are sworn to protect them. While police have a right to protect themselves, and a duty to protect the public, they must also respect and protect human rights in the process.

Legislation like AB 931 can help break this cycle, and serve as an example for what responsive, instead of reactive, policing can be. California has a notorious history of high profile incidents of police using unnecessary or excessive force. The videotaped LAPD beating of Rodney King in 1992 and the 2009 shooting of Oscar Grant in Fruitvale Station in Oakland left indelible marks on history, yet California has the oldest unchanged use of force state statute in the U.S. It has not been changed since it was passed in 1872.

It is time to bring the law into the 21st century. Families who have lost their loved ones to police violence deserve more than just our sympathies. They deserve to see officers held accountable when the use of lethal force is unlawful.

But the burden can’t just be on those directly affected by police violence. Californians must stand in solidarity with those impacted, and call, I mean literally pick up the phone and call 1–844–885–7791, on their state legislators to pass this bill. AB 931 does not pose radical changes, but rather sensible and necessary standards for the use of deadly force. If an officer must take a life in the name of public safety, it must only be in the most critical of circumstances, after exhausting other options. We have seen far too many videos of the state taking the lives of unarmed black and brown men and women with little to no accountability. We must not remain resigned to allowing this to be acceptable or normal, we must act.

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