Police

Gutting of Oversight Bill Puts Kibosh on Police Reform in California

Assembly Bill 284 had little chance of passage because it dealt with an actual problem and was getting pushback from some muscular lobbies.

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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.

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  2. Until we get rid of all laws that require the initiatory use of force nothing will get better. As it stans now cops are a boot in the face not a helping hand. They exist to protect and serve the State not the People. They are nothing more than a criminal gang.

    1. Then why does this problem seem to be getting worse?

      I’d like to see some analysis of this problem over time, states, & countries. What are they doing in places & at times where/when this problem has been worse or better? When there are trends over time, are all countries following them? All states?

      1. To be fair, I don’t know if the problem actually is getting worse. But I do know that it’s getting more attention due to the rise of the Internet, social media, and cell phones with cameras.

        1. Well, there’s also an increasing tendency over the last few decades for cops to use both military rhetoric (which they come to believe in) and military equipment in the course of their law enforcement efforts, with the necessary and obvious result that many beats get treated more like occupied territories.

        2. My guess is that the war on drugs and the increasing recognition of social issues as being problems the government must deal with has also forced more confrontation between civilians and police.

          That being said, I pulled that out of my ass. Have no statistics. I should not be trusted.

  3. Government officials are supposed to work for us. There’s nothing anti-police about questioning the way the current system operates.

    Actually, there is. You see, the police work for The Public. The work for The People. That’s everyone. All those people out there. Not you. Not any one voice. No individual has the right to criticize the police. The police are out there working for everyone. So the only people who are qualified to question the police are our elected representatives. They aren’t individuals. They are superhumans who lack any personal agenda, because they represent the people. But you don’t. And neither do you. If you do then you are an anti-police bigot.

  4. Seriously though, the problem is that police training and culture focuses around two things: Zero tolerance for non-compliance, and zero tolerance for any risk to officer safety. Those are their primary concerns, and violation of either justifies deadly force. Because they need to go home safe at night. Fuck anyone they come into contact with, and fuck their families. Officers are all that matter. Because they serve the public, who is everyone except you. You serve them.

    1. I think you’re right, but I want to add that the problem goes well beyond the shootings and other fatal incidents. There’s virtually zero accountability for cops and departments that routinely and systemically violate the rights of citizens.

      1. Were those citizens non-compliant? Did they put officer safety in jeopardy? If the answer is yes then the officers did what their training and culture has told them to do. So of course there will be no accountability. In the eyes of the system they did nothing wrong. WE SERVE THEM. We have no rights as individuals. None. We do what they tell us, or they get violent. Period. There is no such thing as an unlawful order, because anything they say is by definition a lawful order. If they tell you to strip and to jumping jacks, they will be totally justified in using force when you fail to comply. That’s just how it is.

        1. In a lot of cases, I’m just talking about stuff like unauthorized searches and instances where the cops are clearly just not giving a fuck about the citizens’ rights rather than being driven by any fear.

        2. I’m reminded of an instance, about 5 years ago now, where I was talking with a fellow member of a motorcycle club I belonged to at the time. He was a paramedic, and all about first-responder worship.

          I stated what you did above about what the training and culture is designed for, and he completely agreed. Then went on to describe why that is a good and necessary thing. You see, without immediate compliance, any situation could get worse, leading to innocent people being hurt. If an officer is injured, then any innocent person he/she was going to protect will now be exposed to greater risk of harm, because 1) the officer is no longer actively attempting to rescue/protect them, and 2) now additional resources have to be diverted to assisting the wounded officer.

          Then he went on to tell me how I had no idea what I was talking about because I didn’t live in NYC during the 70s and 80s, when there was no law and the living envied the dead due to all the crime. He literally, and quite heartfeltedly believes that without absolute jack-booted order and complete and immediate obeisance to all lawfully constituted authority, then the only alternative is horrible chaos where gangs rule and rape women and murder children in the middle of the streets while shooting up fire-bombing nearby shops and homes. There is absolutely no in-between state: society must either be one of those things, or the other.

          We agreed to disagree.

          1. *…while shooting up and fire-bombing nearby shops and homes.

          2. And the shit of it is, this isn’t a dumb guy. He isn’t an evil guy. He would always go out of his way to be helpful and nice. But he was a true believe in the Thin Blue Line theory of civilization. I don’t know how to understand that mindset, or how to get through to people like that, as it is a completely alien way of thinking to me.

            1. *…true believer goddamnit.

            2. I don’t know how to understand that mindset, or how to get through to people like that, as it is a completely alien way of thinking to me.

              They seem to have many supporters that think the same way they do. The police keep us safe from “them” and how they do it doesn’t really matter. I have no idea how they get their minds around all the innocent people that get dragged up in their bullshit.

              1. They don’t think there are any innocent people who get hurt, because in their minds “not immediately complying with all requests within 1 second” constitutes no longer being innocent, and inviting your own doom.

                Things which also constitute deserving of your own doom: having a prior record (he was a thug who had it coming), talking back while complying (why didn’t they just shut up?), reaching for a wallet (why did they make a furtive movement?), instinctively tensing up when a cop slams you to the ground or into a car (why were they resisting?), and etc.

                1. It’s not even the instances which you are citing, I mean something obvious like the woman in Minnesota, where the fault of the police isn’t even debatable. It’s like the police supporters have something like Gell-Mann Amnesia when it comes to police abuse.

                  1. “Why did she have to come up to the car? Why couldn’t she have waited inside or at a distance until addressed?”

                  2. Even in extreme situations that are too much for a cop apologist to defend, usually 1 or 2 things happen:

                    1. It’s filed away as an outlier incident due to a bad cop. Any larger questions about systemic issues are ignored.

                    2. The blame is sometimes shifted onto some other scapegoat. For instance, in the Minnesota case I’ve seen a lot of people who would usually be kneejerk cop defenders blame it on the officer being Somali. Once you do that, the problem isn’t anything to do with the police in general, it’s just a matter of keeping Somalis/Muslims/black people off the force.

                  3. I think for many people questioning the police is a slippery slope for them. It can easily lead to uncomfortable questions about the imperfections of other authorities they hold dear.

                  4. I think for many people questioning the police is a slippery slope for them. It can easily lead to uncomfortable questions about the imperfections of other authorities they hold dear.

            3. Maybe he read too much Judge Dredd and similar 70s/80s apocalyptic material.

              1. At some point Judge Dredd became basically universally viewed as a hero. Which is an interesting transformation for a parody of jackboot fascism.

            4. I think that the reason is usually because they:

              A) Personally know some good cops, and since those guys would never do that no cops would ever do that. They’re ‘good American boys’ after all.

              B) They have never been in a situation where a cop fucked them over personally, or had any meaningful interaction in a police vs. them scenario. Even if they have, they might blame ‘the system’ but not the officer unless the encounter was exceptionally egregious. (This probably either results in revising their opinion, or blaming the individual officer)

              C) Literally have not thought about it in particular, or the logical ramifications.

              Basically it comes down to an odd form of NIMBYism, in which people always believe that type of abuse is happening ‘elsewhere’ and could never happen ‘here. Thus no reform is needed ‘here’, which ultimately is everywhere.

          3. He couldn’t wrap his head around the idea that cops CAUSE most of the chaos by enforcing immoral laws particularly drug prohibition.

            1. Law, for many people, is an abstract good. At it’s core to them, Law is a positive thing, and is something to be upheld. It isn’t considered to be a construct of a state, and a construct of man. And also, there is no real thing, “The Law” there is only many different laws, made by man, and each fallible because of it.

              1. The Non Aggresion Principle is not a man made construct. It is natural law. Humans as sapient beings only have one right, to not have force initiated against them.

      2. There’s virtually zero accountability for cops and departments that routinely and systemically violate the rights of citizens.

        I have hope that this will eventually improve, but the instant certain groups make police reform about race, those reforms seem to fail, so I also assume my hope for eventual reform is bound to fail.

        1. I agree that almost exclusively focusing on the racial angle of police abuse is counterproductive, but I’m not sure that it’s make or break for major reforms. And to be honest, I think as long as there’s a big racial divide in the anger over police abuse, the narrative around it will be focused primarily on race.

  5. ” In the rare instance they do prosecute an officer, a jury will side with the cop”

    I think that is going to change, either because of the pretty white woman or just the quantity of cases but the tide is going to turn on that.

    “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.”

    Remember that when they talk about ‘special interests’, the government is the biggest special interest of all

    1. In the rare instance they do prosecute an officer, a jury will side with the cop”

      I think that is going to change, either because of the pretty white woman or just the quantity of cases but the tide is going to turn on that.

      How is it in countries where they don’t have juries?

  6. “Police said the man was a danger to the neighborhood.”

    I thought was supposed to be “He was an immediate threat to the officers”.

    If they are going to start shooting ‘dangers to the neighborhood’, I have a list to submit – – – – –

    Wait. California. Who cares? Secede already. Take Hawaii with you. (new refrain)

  7. 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?

    If they were in power, then yes they would be.

    Why is that a verboten idea in the legislature?

    Because they’re nut-less monkeys.

  8. Thank god it’s Friday, one more day of looking at the news and I’d be doing a double back, half twist, somersault off my desk head first into the stone flooring.

    1. Stone flooring? Lucky. I got this institutional brown carpeting, i’d probably break my neck and then live in a wheelchair the rest of my life.

  9. Time for a ballot proposition

  10. But…but….Jerry is a caring, loving, individual, concerned about the rights of everyone.
    Surely he will direct his minions at the DoJ to ramp-up oversight of LE in CA.
    For the Children!

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