It is happening far too frequently today across the nation: not just your typical police abuse but unnecessary fatalities due to police shootings. Friends and families of loved ones have suffered enough, and finally, one state has taken action: California. Governor Gavin Newsom recently signed into law Assembly Bill 392. But will this Bill do what it is intended to do: prevent unnecessary loss of human life at the hands of the police?
Assembly Bill 392 is also known as the Stephon Clark Law after a young black man – Stephon Clark – was killed by the police in March 2018 while holding his cell phone that the police purportedly misidentified as a gun. Clark was in fact not armed and was in his grandparents' backyard when fatally shot.
California has one of the highest rates of fatal police shootings in the country. According to The Washington Post, last updated August 22, 2019, there have already been 82 persons shot and killed by the police; that's 14 percent of all police shooting fatalities in the country. In Illinois, there have only been 8 persons shot and killed by the police, but most were in the Chicago metropolitan area. In 2018, there were a total of 992 people who were fatally shot by the police throughout the nation, and many of those persons were unarmed.
What will Assembly Bill 392 actually do?
The bill has been watered down after a lot of back and forth, but it is still considered one of the toughest laws in the United States regulating the level of force the police can use. The ability to even get the measure passed is impressive in itself.
The new law requires the police to use deadly force only when "necessary." Before this law, the standard was "reasonable." More importantly in some respects, the law prohibits the police from firing on a fleeing suspect if the suspect does not pose an immediate danger to the public.
If this law had been in force in March 2018, Stephon Clark may still be alive.
Will other states like Illinois follow California?
California has always led the way with new, progressive laws that other states eventually follow. In this particular instance, however, California failed to define what the standard of "necessary" means. The courts will have to decide when the time comes.
For now, though, the standard is above the standard set by "reasonableness," the latter of which involved the court looking to see if an officer reasonably believed his or her life or the life of a bystander was in danger within the seconds the fatal shooting occurred. This standard is similar to the "reasonable" standard in Illinois.
By not defining "necessary" in the statute, the courts will ultimately decide on it. But there are some guidelines, like:
- The actions of the police will be reviewed, e.g., did the officer try to deescalate the situation first?
- The actions of the suspect will also be considered, e.g., was he fleeing and posing no harm to the public or vice versa?
By providing the space to scrutinize the police's role in the fatal shooting under a new threshold, the State of California may indirectly open room for accountability. If this law can do what it is intended to do, then it may be good enough for other states, like Illinois, to follow.