protesters walking with posters about police use of force bill AB 392

California is About to Enact One of the Strongest Laws to Prevent Police Shootings

Aug 19, 2019
Jennifer Rojas

California families impacted by police violence, advocates, and allies just made history. Today, Governor Gavin Newsom signed AB 392, the California Act to Save Lives, a bill to address police shootings – one of the most pressing forms of police violence afflicting Black and brown communities in the state. With this new law, California will go from having one of the deadliest, most permissive use of force laws in the country to having one of the strongest laws in the country.

This is an extraordinary, precedent-setting victory that is long overdue.

Although our state is progressive in many ways, California police officers kill more people than officers in any other state. Like in other states, California police disproportionately kill Black and brown residents and people with disabilities.

In response to grieving families’ calls for reforms, Assemblymember Shirley Weber introduced AB 392 in partnership with Assemblymember Kevin McCarty. They recognized what families have known for far too long: California law gives cover to police shootings that could have been avoided. That’s because, under existing law, police officers can use deadly force and kill someone even if they have other options so long as the use of force was “reasonable.” As a result, police officers are rarely held accountable for bad shootings and little is done to prevent more shootings from happening.

AB 392 offers a logical solution by requiring that police officers avoid using deadly force unless it is necessary to defend themselves or others from immediate harm. This new threshold, also known as the “necessary” standard, is what most people probably assume is already the law.

Additionally, AB 392 will require that courts see police shootings in a new light: courts will have to consider officers’ actions leading up to a shooting to determine if the shooting was legal. California will be the only state in the country to combine the “necessary” standard with this new requirement.

That’s huge. Time and again, we have seen cases all over the country in which officers escalate situations instead of diffusing or de-escalating them and then claim that it was necessary to shoot someone. It won’t be that easy anymore.  

Thanks to the groundswell of support the Let Us Live Coalition amassed, we did what many thought impossible and passed AB 392.  The coalition gathered over 200 letters of support from community organizations, labor unions, medical associations, universities, and national foundations. Local coalitions in Oakland, San Francisco, and San Diego pushed municipal governments to endorse AB 392. Dedicated ACLU volunteers collected hundreds of postcards to flood state legislators’ mailboxes, helped drive over 1,200 constituent calls to capitol offices, and held dozens of meetings with lawmakers’ staff to get votes in support for AB 392.

But that wasn’t all. Families, advocates, and allies traveled to Sacramento – often via overnight charter trips, running on little sleep – from all over the state to make their voices heard at committee hearings, lobby days, and rallies. In April, over 300 impacted family members and other leaders packed the largest hearing room in the State Capitol building, to the point where it was standing room only. Family members gave gripping testimony in support of the bill and the Let Us Live Coalition united behind them to deliver hundreds of statements in support, displaying photos, and repeating the names of those killed by police. Mobilizations like this demonstrated the tremendous amount of people power behind AB 392 and made all the difference in getting the bill passed.

There are over 200 law enforcement agencies in California. Starting January 1, 2020, every one of them will have to comply with this new law and require that officers only use deadly force when necessary. That means departments will have to update their use of force policies to meet the higher “necessary” standard.

Today, we celebrate this incredible victory, while also recognizing that our work is not over. AB 392 is an important step forward, but we will continue to fight until everyone, no matter their race, is able to live with dignity and free from all forms of state violence.

*The Let Us Live Coalition is made up of several local, statewide, and national organizations including AB 392’s co-sponsors: The California  STOP Coalition and California Families United 4 Justice (two organizations led by and comprised of nearly 100 families impacted by police violence), Alliance for Boys and Men of Color/PolicyLink, ACLU of California, Anti Police-Terror Project, Communities United for Restorative Youth Justice (CURYJ), PICO California, United Domestic Workers (UDW) – AFSCME Local 3930, and the Youth Justice Coalition.

Jennifer Rojas is a policy advocate and organizer at the ACLU of Southern California.