There are two rules of thumb to keep in mind when following the California legislature.
First, lawmakers love to prattle about pie-in-the-sky issues, such as halting global warming, but steadfastly avoid tackling nuts-and-bolts issues (pension liabilities, infrastructure repairs) that cry out for attention but run up against powerful special-interest groups.
Second, you always know it's a cop-out when legislators promise to "study" something.
The gutting of a police-reform bill last week combined both of those realities. Assembly Bill 284 had little chance of passage because it dealt with an actual problem and was getting pushback from some muscular lobbies. Instead of killing the measure and getting a bad rap among their minority constituents, legislators turned it into a meaningless study bill.
The bill was introduced by Assemblyman Kevin McCarty (D-Sacramento) following an incident captured on a disturbing video. Last July, Sacramento police tried to run over a knife-wielding, mentally ill man with their police cruiser, then fired 18 shots and killed him. The city in February settled a lawsuit with the man's family for $719,000, but the district attorney cleared the officers of wrongdoing. Police said the man was a danger to the neighborhood.
Obviously, several "use of force" incidents have been in the news, so the Sacramento situation wasn't unusual. What was unusual is that a legislator proposed something substantive in response. The legislation would have created statewide teams to investigate officer-involved shootings. This would provide outside involvement in the currently incestuous oversight system. The revised bill now merely requires the state Department of Justice to produce a report of times officers shoot people or when people shoot them.
Let's deal with a few little-discussed realities. No matter how egregious any killing appears, officers are cleared by their own departments and district attorneys, who work closely with the same police departments they oversee. In the rare instance they do prosecute an officer, a jury will side with the cop. Police unions shield even the worst officers, who always claim their lives were in danger. I've covered a number of these cases, and the result is usually the same.
Here are some more realities. Liberals see these police killings through an entirely racial lens. There is, of course, a strong racial element to many of them, but most of the ones I've covered have had white people as the victims. It's more a policing problem that centers on an insular paramilitary culture that downplays the value of "civilian" lives.
Conservatives—you know, the folks who prattle about government overreach—instinctively side with the government's agents. Would they be OK with letting the IRS or the Environmental Protection Agency or the California Air Resources Board investigate themselves when there are accusations of abusive behavior? Should we always side with government because, well, it's responsible for protecting us and its employees often have tough jobs?
The gutting of AB284 also reminds us of this reality: Union-allied Democrats are as hostile to police reforms as Republicans. Democratic state Attorney General Xavier Becerra, for instance, opposed the bill in its original state but backed it after it was watered down into meaninglessness. I'm glad that civil-rights groups spoke out at the Capitol against the amended version. Perhaps they will realize that there's virtually no chance any substantive police reform will move forward, even with Democratic legislative dominance.
Whenever there's a troubling incident, we're faced with a false choice. We can trust the process or get upset that the officers don't face criminal sentences. But there is a third option. We can analyze current policies, training, job protections and strategies—and institute reforms to improve the way those agencies operate. After the Sacramento shooting, the city instituted some reforms. Why is that a verboten idea in the legislature?
Government officials are supposed to work for us. There's nothing anti-police about questioning the way the current system operates. Police policy has been dominated for decades by law-enforcement unions, which exist solely to protect officers. Lawmakers from both parties are deathly afraid of their power—and of being portrayed in the next election as "soft on crime."
As a result, public concerns are given short shrift. Meanwhile, the drug war (and all that surplus military equipment) has led to increased militarization of local police forces, even though crime rates have fallen to levels not seen since the days of "The Andy Griffith Show." Instead of a community policing model, we often get one that seems more like something from an occupying army.
Liberals, in particular, forget that all the new rules and regulations they promote ultimately will be enforced by police officers. Some of the most disturbing police incidents involve cops enforcing picayune regulations.
It's unclear whether McCarty's original idea would have made any difference, but it is clear the current bill punts on a serious problem—and that the new studies will be meaningless. We can do better than this.
This column first appeared in the Orange County Register.