As of Jan. 1, California’s 80,000 or so police officers will become the state’s largest student body.
That is the date a new law goes into effect, having recently been signed by Gov. Gavin Newsom, that modifies conditions under which a police officer can legally use deadly force.
In a perfect world, we would have replaced the word “modifies” with “clarifies,” but as every Californian knows, that’s not how we conduct public-policy business of this state.
Assembly Bill 392 changes an officer’s ability to use deadly force from when it is “reasonable,” to when it is “necessary.” In this case, semantics may turn out to be everything.
For example, legal experts say the spirit and intent of the new law is to encourage police officers to de-escalate a crisis, rather than using the force of firearms and other weaponized deterrents. But this is where semantics comes into play. The true, final test of the new law’s effectiveness will come after a crisis situation is handled, in the courts with juries deciding if what officers did was reasonable and/or necessary, with emphasis on the latter.
AB 392 and other laws like it around the country are an anticipated backlash against increased public attention on law enforcement officers killing/seriously wounding unarmed African American men. The general consensus on the activist side is that police are far too quick to pull the trigger.
And a lot of the shootings appear in video on the 6 o’clock news, and are seen by tens of millions of Americans with little or no context for how the crisis actually went down.
As one might expect, when AB 392 was being debated in the California Legislature, law enforcement groups throughout the state vigorously opposed the measure, and police unions are accustomed to getting their way with state lawmakers. Law enforcement backed down a bit as the bill’s provisions underwent significant rewriting, which activists referred to as a watering down on the bill’s intent.
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The final result will be a law whose effectiveness will likely be a function of how thoroughly law enforcement agencies train their officers in the law’s enforcement.
What worries law enforcement officials the most is that the necessity requirement will cause officers to hesitate in crisis situations, and as every military member and police officer knows, hesitation can prove fatal.
Police forces and the military are not that different concerning crisis situations. Police officers and soldiers are held to incredibly high standards when it comes to reacting in crisis situations, and when things go wrong in the split-second decision-making process, the post-confrontation scrutiny can and often is withering.
Most of California’s big-city police forces already get training of this sort, but many of the smaller operations can’t afford it. Now, they will have to afford it.
So far, we’ve discussed this from the perspective of law enforcement, but how should California citizens react to the new law? Hopefully, the majority of us will not have to react. The very last thing most private citizens want is to be caught in the middle of a crisis in which the police use of deadly force is required.
As citizens, whose tax dollars support the functions of all levels of government, we should want our law enforcement to react using reason, logic — and necessity. When you consider the job of bringing all those elements together for a satisfactory conclusion, you realize just how difficult a police officer’s job can be.
And consider the fact that almost every potentially deadly confrontation is being recorded.