As progressives, we must recognize that our country—whatever its promise of life, liberty, happiness, and equality under the law—has a long and deep-seated history of racism and racial inequity. It began with the genocide of indigenous populations and slavery, and continues today with Donald Trump: a white supremacist who gleefully attacks people of color through harmful federal policies and racist rhetoric. We must recognize these failings, but we should never accept them—and we must work to repair them.
One of our core organizational principles is that an attack on one is an attack on all. Therefore, it is critical that we show up to support state-level efforts to advance racial justice whenever we can, wherever we can. This year, there is a critical opportunity in California to fight racial injustice through a package of police reform bills that would help reduce abuses against communities of color.
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We have a national crisis of police violence against people of color in this country. Black people are three times more likely to be killed by the police than white people. 30% of black police shooting victims are unarmed, compared with 21% of white victims, and 99% of these cases have resulted in the officer’s acquittal.
Black men are killed by the police at a rate that is nearly three times that of white men. 35% of the unarmed people killed by police in 2017 were Black, even though Black people make up only 13% of the population.
In California specifically, officers shot and killed 162 people in 2017. Half of those shooting victims were unarmed. Only 30% of police shooting victims in California were white between 2006 and 2015. This means that blacks were killed by police officers at a rate five times that of whites and Latinos three times (adjusting for population).
California is not immune to this crisis, and is in fact one of the states with the highest incidence of police violence. California police departments have the highest rate of killings in the nation, and these officers are almost never held accountable for their actions. Recently, a video surfaced that showed the sheriff of Kern County declaring that it is better for police officers to kill someone rather than injure them. This is disgusting and confirms what we already know: the current system, due to poor training and a lack of accountability, encourages a “shoot first, think later” approach to policing.
In March, Sacramento Police chased and killed Stephon Clark, an unarmed black man holding his cell phone, in his grandmother’s backyard. This horrendous event has led to a wave of brave #BlackLivesMatter protests in the state’s capital that has shed light onto the issue of police violence and the terrible state of our policing laws in California. Three bills have been introduced in the state legislature this year that could substantially help reduce police violence.
AB 931: Police Use of Deadly Force
Under California law, officers are legally allowed to shoot and kill someone if it is “objectively reasonable.” This means that killing someone is legal, even if the killing wasn’t necessary to keep police officers or the public safe.
AB 931 would change the standard for the use of deadly force so that it can only be legally deployed when absolutely necessary. Research shows that strong use of force policies actually do work to reduce police violence.
SB 1421: Police Misconduct Secrecy
California law keeps all investigations and discipline of police officers secret, even for deadly shootings or when an officer’s own department concludes that they committed sexual assault or planted evidence.
Keeping records of police misconduct and serious uses of force secret prevents the public from ensuring that law enforcement officers are held accountable for their actions. This disproportionately harms communities of color and others who suffer the most from police harassment and brutality.
SB 1421, introduced by Sen. Nancy Skinner, would lift the veil of police secrecy and improve transparency and accountability by allowing members of the public to request access to information on police shootings and deadly use of force, as well as confirmed cases of officer misconduct such as sexual assault and serious job related dishonesty.
AB 3131: Police Demilitarization
Following the militarized policing of protests in Ferguson, MO in 2014, President Obama issued an executive order in 2015 to place limits on the sale of surplus military equipment (federal 1033 program) to state and local police departments. The logic is simple: police should not need things like grenade launchers or tanks to carry out their duties, and a militarized police force is more likely to use deadly force—which disproportionately and profoundly impacts communities of color.
In August 2017, as part of their ongoing efforts to push a white supremacist agenda, President Trump and Jeff Sessions rolled back Obama’s executive order, allowing police departments access to military-grade weaponry once again.
We estimate that the total value of military equipment received by law enforcement agencies in California under the 1033 program since 1993 is well over $150M and included tanks, armored vehicles, assault rifles and aircraft.
Indivisible CA: StateStrong, a coalition of California Indivisible groups working on state legislative advocacy, has teamed up with the ACLU of California, the American Friends Service Committee, the Friends Committee on Legislation, and the Anti-Police Terror Project to co-sponsor a bill (AB 3131) to bring transparency and accountability to the use of military weapons by police. AB 3131 would require an open hearing when a police force agency wants to purchase military equipment through the federal 1033 program, and requires the requesting agency to disclose its use policy, proposal for use, and an annual report on use for each piece of military equipment.
Not only does this bill directly resist the Trump administration’s attempt to militarize the police force, but it creates significant police oversight, which will help to protect our communities of color in California.
SB 1186: Police Surveillance
In addition to military weaponry, law enforcement also acquire all sorts of surveillance technologies that are used without the public’s knowledge or input. The use of these surveillance technologies are an invasion of our privacy and the data that has been obtained has been used against our immigrant communities for deportation raids. Similarly to AB 3131, SB 1186 brings transparency and accountability into police acquisition of surveillance equipment.
All four bills have passed through the floor of their chamber of origin (Assembly for AB 3131/ AB 931 and Senate for SB 1421/ SB 1186). They will be heard in the Appropriations Committees of the second chamber, which will consider the fiscal impact of the bill. If they pass, they will head to the full Senate (AB 3131 and AB 931) and Assembly (SB 1421 and SB 1186) floors where they must pass before August 31st.