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New Law Could Actually Put Killer Cops in Jail

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On Tuesday, June 19th,  the California Senate Public Safety committee will discuss AB931, The Police Accountability and Community Protection Act, which aims to limit when cops can legally kill citizens and hold police legally responsible when they kill people wrongfully.

In 2015 SF police fired 26 rounds at Mario Woods and in 2016 seven rounds at Luis Gongora, killing both men. Both were armed with knives and eyewitnesses contradict police claims that either were threatening anyone when police killed them.

Luis Góngora and his wife Fidelia as young newlyweds. Photograph: Ivan Gabaldon for the Guardian Source

“To the Woods family and the Góngora family, there are not enough words that I can say that are going to bring their loved ones back,” San Francisco District Attorney George Gascón said. “I’m very sorry they lost a son, they lost a brother, a friend, because I don’t believe that was necessary.”

It’s been nearly 20 years since a SF prosecutor brought charges against a police officer for killing a citizen. The officers who killed Woods and Gongora even kept their jobs. “They are all looking forward to getting back to the job they love,” said Tony Montoya, president of the San Francisco Police Officers Association.

Police in six southern California counties have shot more than 2,000 people since 2004, yet only one officer has faced prosecution in that time. That officer was acquitted.

That’s because California police officers are legally allowed to kill citizens for merely resisting arrest. If you’re a felon, a cop can shoot you to death while you’re running away and face no consequences. “Under California law, it is perfectly legal for a police officer to shoot and kill someone, even if other alternatives are available and even if the killing wasn’t necessary to keep officers or the public safe,” writes Peter Bibring, Director of Police Practices, ACLU of Southern California.

Even if you’re not a felon, a police officer in San Francisco can kill you for driving away and never see the inside of a courtroom. In Sacramento, police killed Stephon Clark in his grandmother’s backyard. Officers fired 20 rounds into his body while he held his cell phone.

Sequita Thompson, (L) grandmother of Stephon Clark who was shot and killed by Sacramento police, cries as she speaks during a news conference with civil rights attorney Ben Crump (R) on March 26, 2018 in Sacramento, California. Source

“As a society, we are failing some our most vulnerable communities when it comes to police use of force, ” said Gascon about his support for AB931.

Introduced by Democratic Assembly members Kevin McCarty of Sacramento and Shirley Weber of San Diego, AB931 narrows the range of circumstances in which it’s justifiable for an officer to kill. Under the law, police officers would only be allowed to use deadly force in situations where not doing so would lead to the officer or a third party getting seriously injured or killed. Police officers would not be permitted to kill someone to prevent that person’s injury or death. They would also be limited to killing suspects who are fleeing if and only if the officer has probable cause to believe that the person fleeing has committed, or intends to commit, a felony involving serious bodily injury or death, and there is an imminent risk of serious bodily injury or death to the officer or to another person if the subject is not immediately apprehended.

This new law would simply bring the legal standard for when cops can kill people closer in line to the standards for all citizens, ie cases of self-defense or defense of another. Legally prohibiting police officers from killing people for running away or driving cars will make it much easier for prosecutors to bring criminal charges against officers who kill.

The move comes on the heels of electoral losses for a police force many see as unaccountable. The U.S. Department of Justice recently concluded an in-depth investigation of the San Francisco police force, finding a lack of accountability and transparency and problematic use-of-force policies.

Voters rejected Prop H, the POA’s attempt to reject the Police Commission and Chief’s taser recommendations. The POA-backed incumbent in District 8 lost his bid for re-election. Only one Mayoral candidate sought POA endorsement, Angela Alioto who took up the POA’s agenda to weaken San Francisco’s sanctuary law. She came in a distant fourth.

The Nation recently pointed to evidence that limiting when officers are allowed to kill reduces killings by police. Campaign Zero examined administrative policies of 97 of the 100 largest police departments across the country since 2014. They found that departments that implemented use-of-force restrictions reduced killings by police by 25 percent.

The Sacramento Police Officers Association, Los Angeles Police Protective League, and Peace Officer’s Research Association of California oppose reform.

Not only have the four states with laws similar to AB913 experienced a 16 percent drop in deaths by cop, but officers who work in departments with more restrictive policies are less likely to be killed in the line of duty.

Supporters of the bill include the San Francisco Chronicle’s editorial board, who wrote: “Stricter laws and standards are part of the solution — not only to hold officers accountable for wrongful deaths but, more importantly, to discourage unnecessary use of lethal force in the first place.”

The ACLU of Southern California called the bill “landmark legislation to protect Californians and hold police accountable.” The Alliance for Boys and Men of Color wrote, “Police should never kill if there are other options.” California currently has the nation’s highest deadly force rate.

San Franciscans who support police accountability and want to see fewer people die at the hands of police should call Senator Scott Weiner at 916.651.4011 to voice your concerns before AB 931 is brought before the state committee hearing on Tuesday June 19th.

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Cathy Reisenwitz is a SF-based writer with a focus on sex, politics, and technology. She is Editor-in-Chief of Sex and the State.