Activists hoped for bigger reforms in California after this summer’s protests.
Gov. Gavin Newsom signed into law a modest slate of bills meant to overhaul California law enforcement Wednesday, but disappointed many police reform advocates by vetoing other legislation designed to reimagine the role police play in addressing societal problems.
Civil liberties groups and many who protested in the wake of the Minneapolis police killing of George Floyd this summer had urged California and its Democrat-dominated state government to take far more aggressive action this year to roll back law enforcement powers that they say enable racist police practices. But many of the policies they supported failed amid a chaotic end to the Legislature’s session and stiff resistance from the state’s powerful police unions.
Newsom and other lawmakers have touted the more limited legislation they passed as steps toward meaningful changes to law enforcement, and pledged to do more in the coming years.
“None of these bills are easy,” Newsom said in a Zoom-based bill-signing ceremony Wednesday afternoon. “So many constituencies, so many nuances, a lot of folks pushing back — but I think under the circumstances, the fact that we were able to get this far is a very big deal.
“I recognize we have a lot more to do in this space and we are not walking away from this responsibility,” he added, pounding the desk for emphasis.
One of the new laws Newsom signed bans officers from using the carotid “sleeper” restraint, a neck hold that can turn deadly when it is applied improperly. Newsom had earlier this summer directed the state’s law enforcement standards commission to stop offering training on the tactic, and many departments already prohibited it.
Another new law requires California’s attorney general, rather than local authorities, to conduct the investigations into certain deadly police shootings, in a bid to improve public trust of those investigations. A third bolsters the authority of civilian watchdog panels that oversee sheriff’s departments.
Asm. Kevin McCarty, D-Sacramento had tried in prior years to gain support for independent review of police shootings, but the outrage this summer propelled it to finally pass.
“This has been an effort before George Floyd — but really the murder of George Floyd before our eyes put these issues in the spotlight, and it allowed us to get bipartisan support, which I’m proud of,” McCarty said during the signing ceremony.
The shooting investigations bill reflected the compromises that defined this legislative session. Unlike earlier versions, the new law only requires the attorney general to investigate fatal police shootings of unarmed people, as opposed to all deaths at the hands of police. And it is contingent on lawmakers providing funding for the Department of Justice to conduct those investigations, estimated at $80 million per year.
Newsom also signed into law other legislation aimed at the judicial side of the criminal justice system, including one bill requiring more transparency in the jury selection process to prevent racial discrimination, and another mandating that juvenile suspects consult with an attorney before police can interrogate them. Driven by a national reckoning over the role of slavery and racism in perpetuating modern inequality, Newsom also signed a bill creating a task force to study how the state could provide reparations.
Most of the more wide-reaching list of police reform bills proposed by lawmakers this summer never made it to Newsom’s desk. Those included bills to bolster public access to police misconduct records, require officers to intervene if they witness excessive force and sharply limit the use of crowd control tactics such as rubber bullets and tear gas.
Another failed bill — and perhaps the most contentious — would have permanently revoked the badges of officers who commit crimes or serious misconduct, and roll back some of the legal protections known as qualified immunity that often shield officers from being held liable in excessive force lawsuits. This “decertification” bill never got a vote before the end of the legislative session.
Late Wednesday night, Newsom’s office announced he had vetoed a much narrower bill, meant to ensure officers accused of misconduct can’t resign and take jobs elsewhere in lieu of discipline. The bill, which was supported by the California State Sheriffs’ Association, would have required law enforcement agencies to notify the state’s police standards commission if an officer leaves in the midst of an investigation into their conduct, and to complete that inquiry within a year. If the officer sought work at another department, the commission would have to tell that agency about the pending investigation or its outcome.
In his veto message, Newsom wrote, “I agree with the intent of this legislation… But this bill does not go far enough,” and that he was concerned its passage could slow momentum for a broader decertification bill the Legislature could take up in the future. California is one of only five states that does not have a decertification process.
Newsom also vetoed a bill creating a grant pilot program to explore new “community-based alternatives” to traditional law enforcement that could respond to 9-1-1 calls that involve issues such as homelessness, mental health or drug addiction. Newsom said he vetoed the bill, AB2054, because it would have required the state’s Office of Emergency Services to administer the grants. He said he would work with lawmakers next year to instead implement a program through the state budget.
“There is a lot of disappointment,” said James Burch, policy director for the Anti Police-Terror Project. The Oakland organization, which advocates for eventually abolishing law enforcement as we now know it, supported the bill and other pieces of legislation that failed this year, which Burch said “were not even radical bills.”
“When we can’t even pass the common-sense legislation needed to save lives, someone needs to be held accountable,” he said.