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Dan Walters: Legislature fails on police reform promises
Calmatters Commentary

Dan Walters: Legislature fails on police reform promises

Dan Walters: Prop 13, and a conflict 42 years in the making

Walters, Dan

When the California Legislature folded up its tent 10 days ago, it left an extraordinary number of high-profile bills still awaiting final votes, and the finger-pointing has been underway ever since.

It’s not unusual for the last day of any legislative session to be a madhouse but the 2020 version was especially so for a variety of reasons, including the public eruption of long-simmering animosity between the Legislature’s two top figures, Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon and Senate President Pro Tem Toni Atkins.

Atkins’ own agenda-topping measure to spark much-needed housing construction, Senate Bill 1120, was a conspicuous casualty. After it languished on the Assembly floor for two months, Rendon’s house returned it to the Senate at 11:57 p.m., too late for a final vote by midnight.

In the aftermath, the two leaders exchanged accusatory statements to journalists, each blaming the other for the bill’s demise.

However, SB 1120 wasn’t the only bill to die that night and the failures included several aimed at fulfilling the police reform promises Democratic legislators had made in the wake of George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis.

Many state legislators had joined police brutality protests outside the Capitol — on the day of Floyd’s funeral — and pledged to make California police more accountable. While a couple of police reform bills passed, including one requiring the attorney general to investigate police killings of unarmed suspects, the most important ones died in a continuing testament to police unions’ political muscle.

Last year, police unions had seemingly lost much of their long-standing authority to block reform. After a young unarmed Black man, Stephon Clark, died in a hail of Sacramento police bullets, the Legislature changed the law on deadly force, allowing it only when “necessary to defend against an imminent threat of death or serious bodily injury to the officer or to another person.”

The 2020 session began in January with many other police reform bills on the agenda but as it ended, three major measures, Assembly Bill 66 and Senate Bills 731 and 776, were still stalled.

AB 66 would have banned use of many “less lethal” police weapons, such as rubber bullets and “chemical agents” against protesters.

SB 731, if enacted, would have lifted the state-issued licenses — called “certification” — of cops convicted of crimes. The “George Floyd Law,” as it was dubbed, is hardly a new idea since California is just one of five states that don’t bar criminal cops from working as cops.

After it died, SB 731’s author, Sen. Steven Bradford, a Gardena Democrat, blamed Speaker Rendon, telling Capitol Public Radio, “We had our votes, but the speaker wouldn’t know that unless he allowed us to have our day in the sun.”

SB 776 would have opened police conduct records to public scrutiny, breaching the wall of secrecy now enveloping such matters.

The latter two measures would have begun to treat cops like other members of state-licensed professions, such a doctors and lawyers. But politics, as we learn again, have nothing to do with logic or equity.

Ironically and tragically, as the bills died on the last night of the session, so did a Black bicyclist in Los Angeles. Sheriff’s deputies shot and killed the man during a scuffle after they had stopped him for a bicycle “code violation.” He had dropped a handgun during the struggle.

Dijon Kizzee’s death touched off another flurry of protests and will be added to the list of grievances when the Legislature reconvenes in December and again confronts the political difficulty of policing the police.

CALmatters is a public interest journalism venture committed to explaining how California's state Capitol works and why it matters.


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