The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

California considers nation’s strictest police use-of-force standard after Stephon Clark shooting

Sequita Thompson’s living room, crowded with handmade signs and photographs of her late grandson, is separated by a sliding-glass door from the narrow backyard where Clark was killed. (Scott Wilson/The Washington Post)

SACRAMENTO — Sequita Thompson pulled open the sliding-glass door leading from her living room, crowded with handmade protest signs and photographs of her late grandson, to a narrow backyard. She would not step beyond the threshold.

Marked off by a rectangle of red candles was a concrete marker. A football helmet bearing the number “23” was carved into one corner. “Stephon Clark,” read the tallest letters in the center. “August 10, 1995 — March 18, 2018.”

“I won’t go out there, never again,” said Thompson, Clark’s grandmother, as she looked at the memorial from inside the house. “That’s where they executed my grandson.”

Unarmed and on his family’s property, Clark was shot eight times in the evening darkness by two Sacramento police officers who mistook the glow of his cellphone for a gun’s muzzle flash. Last month, the county district attorney and the state attorney general declined to prosecute the officers, bringing hundreds of demonstrators into the streets for days of protest.

In the angry aftermath that has convulsed this city, usually as staid as its bureaucratic character, California has begun debating the adoption of the nation’s most restrictive law governing police use of deadly force.

In question is the shift of a single word.

For the past 147 years, California law enforcement officials have operated under a use-of-force statute adopted when the state was still a lightly governed frontier. It allows police officers to use deadly force when “arresting persons charged with felony, and who are fleeing from justice or resisting such arrest.”

That was effectively replaced in 1989 when the U.S. Supreme Court stated that lethal force is justified against a suspect if a “reasonable” officer would have acted the same way in the same situation.

A bill before the State Assembly would raise that threshold. Under the legislation, a police officer would be justified in using lethal force only if it were determined to be “necessary” to defend against imminent death or severe harm.

California law enforcement associations, among the state’s most powerful lobbies, oppose the bill, which could serve as a national precedent. Police chiefs to line officers have thrown their support behind another bill in the state Senate that would officially make the “reasonable” officer standard state law and seek a large increase in funding for police training.

“We do need more money for training,” said Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon (D-Los Angeles). “But to a large extent [the Senate bill] maintains the status quo, and that’s just not satisfactory right now.”

At the center of the debate is perhaps the most volatile issue of the Black Lives Matter era: the perceived impunity for police officers involved in fatal shootings. It is also part of a broader push in California — propelled by an overwhelmingly Democratic state government — to address criminal justice practices that have fallen hardest on people of color.

Last year, the legislature voted to abolish cash bail, a pretrial feature of the justice system that often meant the poor remained behind bars simply because they could not pay to leave. Most recently, Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) defied a two-year-old voter initiative by suspending the state death penalty, giving the 737 inmates on California’s death row a reprieve from execution.

Police use-of-force rules are even more politically charged. At one of the state Capitol’s main public entrances, a flag-framed memorial to officers killed in the line of duty stands as a testament to the emotional and political sway law enforcement agencies exert here.

“We lose loved ones, too, and we understand the tragedy and loss,” said Citrus Heights Police Chief Ronald Lawrence, the new president of the California Police Chiefs Association, who noted that 144 police officers were killed in the line of duty last year, including 11 in California.

Lawrence, whose membership opposes changing the use-of-force standard, said that “what a lot of us need to do is ratchet down the rhetoric and understand that police forces are reflections of our communities.” His message is for suspects “to cooperate, then complain” about alleged officer misconduct.

“This is the mantra we hope the community will adopt,” he said.

Stephon Clark, who police say did not respond to their orders to “show me your hands” as they responded to a call about vehicle break-ins, was one of 115 people fatally shot by police in California last year, according to The Washington Post’s “Fatal Force” database. More than half were black or Latino.

This year, police have shot and killed 31 people in the state, a slightly higher rate than in 2018. Among them was 20-year-old Willie McCoy, who in February fell asleep in his car in a Taco Bell drive-through in Vallejo, Calif., with a handgun in his lap. One of the six police officers involved in the incident had fatally shot another man the previous year.

“They’re very worried about a change in standard and, you know how pendulums move, that the pendulum will go so far as to make officers feel like they can’t do their jobs,” said state Senate President Toni Atkins (D-San ­Diego). “There’s a reality to that.”

Atkins said that negotiations between police associations and lawmakers before the legislative session began did not yield a compromise. She said the sides “need to come to some agreement, and I think it’s going to be a rough ride.”

“Something needs to happen this year, and there’s going to have to be a better balance between the two,” said Atkins, who like Rendon has not taken an official position on the legislation. “I clearly think law enforcement is going to have to move.”

In recent years several cities, including San Francisco and Seattle, have tightened use-of-force regulations in ways similar to what the state is considering.

San Francisco, for example, changed the “reasonable” officer standard in 2016 to say that “sworn law enforcement officers” will “never employ unnecessary force,” among other rules meant to cut down on confrontation. The year after the new regulations took effect, the city reported a nearly 20 percent decline in use-of-force incidents.

“There is a better way that we can get positive results, not only for the public but also for law enforcement,” said Assemblywoman Shirley Weber (D-San Diego), who is proposing the use-of-force change.

Weber said too many people have complied with police orders only to be killed by a fearful officer. She also questioned why some suspects who have “nothing to lose,” including the Charleston, S.C., church shooter Dylann Roof, are apprehended alive.

“We begin to look at deadly force and realize that it is often not considered the last option, because it places the ‘reasonableness’ of it versus the ‘necessity’ of it,” Weber said. “Is it really necessary to use lethal force when you’re not confronted with a situation of life and death yourself?”

The legislation’s path, Weber said, will be a difficult one given the power of the law enforcement lobby that she said is matched only by education interest groups.

“They are a vital part of California, no question, and we give them awesome respect and responsibility,” Weber said. “But we also expect accountability.”

How a new use-of-force standard would be applied is a matter of argument. Lawrence, the head of the police chiefs association, said it would amount to “Monday morning quarterbacking” by allowing investigators to use a highly subjective term to judge a shooting after the fact.

“My focus is not to go back and look at what happened through the lens of new language,” said state Sen. Anna Caballero (D-Salinas Valley), who is sponsoring the bill to expand police training. “My goal is to create an environment where deadly force is no longer necessary.”

Last year, the legislature included $30 million for police training. Caballero, a lawyer by profession, is seeking about four times that amount in her proposal, which would retrain every officer in the state’s more than 500 law enforcement agencies in “de-escalation” tactics. The bill would also officially replace the 1872 use-of-force statute with the “reasonable” officer standard.

“What you want is certainty in the language so that police officers and their superiors know what is expected of them,” Caballero said.

Daniel Hahn was born and raised in this city’s Oak Park neighborhood, which, like the Meadowview community where Stephon Clark was killed, is a notoriously rough place on the southside of Route 50. At 16, he was arrested for assaulting a police officer.

Today, at 50, Hahn is Sacramento’s police chief. An early milestone along his path to run the 660-officer department came in March 1992 when, on his beat, he identified a young man killed in a drug dispute. It was his brother.

“Our community needs the police department, and our police department needs the community,” Hahn said. “We have to find real solutions that truly make a difference and quit like nibbling around the edges and just doing things that might make us feel good for a little bit.”

Hahn places body cameras in this category, a supposed panacea to the excessive use of force. He wears one and believes all officers should. But he said it’s not enough — just as, in his view, the change in use-of-force standards would not be enough and would create more confusion than clarity.

In the past year, Hahn has started the “Walk in My Shoes” program, in which a new police academy graduate pairs up with a community leader in an unfamiliar neighborhood.

He has invited Stanford University to study the department’s body-camera policy and the Justice Department to recommend changes in use-of-force regulations. He made sure all documents and video footage of the Stephon Clark case were posted online.

“This has to be an open relationship with the community, and when we are wrong, we need to say we are wrong,” Hahn said. “And when we are right, we’re going to say we’re right.”