California’s New Laws on Police Use-Of-Force Explained

What to Know About California’s New Police Use-of-Force Law

On average, California police shoot and kill someone every two to three days. This number is higher than the national average – even considering California’s size.

After several high-profile cases of police shooting unarmed people, state lawmakers decided to act. They passed a new law tightening the standard for when police can use deadly force. When prosecutors decide whether a police shooting is justified, they typically turn to a legal standard set by the United States Supreme Court in 1989.

Essentially, it says an officer’s use of force must be reasonable. Would a reasonable officer in the same circumstances do the same thing? If so, the shooting can be justified.

Police view this “reasonable standard” as critical legal protection they need to perform a dangerous job. On the other hand, civil rights advocates see it as a squishy standard that’s failed to hold many officers accountable for unnecessarily killing someone.

With the new law, California is going beyond the reasonable standard to limit when police can shoot. Officers can now only use deadly force when “necessary in defense of human life.”

The law says officers are supposed to shoot only if there’s an imminent threat of death or serious injury.

It also says, in determining if a shooting is justified, authorities must look at the behavior leading up to the shooting — of both the subject and the officer. This is supposed to encourage police to de-escalate situations whenever possible.

The new law is a win for civil rights advocates, who have wanted to restrict police use of deadly force for a long time. But to get the bill through the Legislature, they had to compromise with police groups.

In the compromise, lawmakers took out a definition of the word “necessary.” This means a lot of the power of the new law is largely going to be determined by the courts. In future cases, it’ll be up to them to decide what “necessary” means.

They also incorporated ideas from the Supreme Court’s reasonable standard. So, the new question for deciding if deadly force is justified will be: Would a reasonable officer think it was necessary?

After the compromise, police dropped their opposition to the bill and a few civil rights groups—including Black Lives Matter— pulled their support.

The Law went into effect on New Year’s Day, 2020.


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