California passes law requiring police to use force only when ‘necessary’

Infographic with timeline of lethal use of force policy
Karina Nguyen/Staff

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AB 392, a recently enacted state Assembly bill, will make laws on police use of force in California — one of the states with the highest records of police force — more strict.

The city of Berkeley’s force policy currently allows for reasonable force to make an arrest, prevent an escape, overcome resistance or maintain order. Lethal force is justifiable when an officer reasonably believes that using it is necessary to prevent death or serious injury, or to prevent an escape, according to the policy.

Under AB 392, force must only be used when “necessary” rather than when “reasonable.” The bill, signed into law by Gov. Gavin Newsom on Monday, specifies that officers must use other resources and techniques to address threats instead of deadly force.

“With so many unnecessary deaths, I think everyone agrees that we need to change how deadly force is used in California,” said bill author and Assemblymember Shirley Weber, D-San Diego, in a press release. “We can now move a policy forward that will save lives and change the culture of policing in California.”

California Police Chiefs Association President Ronald Lawrence said SB 230, a bill in the state Senate, is equally important as, if not more important than, AB 392 because it will provide the training necessary to reduce the use of force. Since it is muscle memory that factors into split-second decisions to use force, it is training that will ultimately keep California safer, Lawrence added.

The city of Berkeley, however, has recently enacted a spit hood policy that runs counter to the motivation of reducing police brutality, according to Andrea Prichett, a former member of the city’s Police Review Commission.

Spit hoods, also known as spit masks, are temporary protective devices used during the application of physical restraint that prevent the wearer from transmitting bodily fluids and potential disease.

“The policy is contrary to the spirit of AB392 because instead of seeking to limit police abuse, our spit hood policy opens the door to the casual mistreatment and dehumanization of those detained by police,” Prichett said in an email.

UCPD will receive formal training and legal updates when the new laws “come on the books” in January, according to UCPD spokesperson Sgt. Nicolas Hernandez.

Similarly, AB 392 will be “something we’re going to have to go over with the city attorney,” according to Berkeley Police Department spokesperson Officer Byron White.

“No officer here wants to take anyone’s life. I’ve never had to shoot at anyone, and I hope that I’m never in the place where I have to discharge my firearm,” White said. “But … not every situation can be de-escalated. There will be occasions where lethal force will be necessary — I just hope that can be avoided.”

These changes will help to professionalize policing and reassure the community that police officers are held to enforceable standards, according to Prichett.

Adapting the policy will also help to remodel California policing, improve trust between police and communities and serve as a benchmark for the rest of the nation, according to Lawrence.

“This is the first bill that would begin to change the rules of engagement for force in California. It is important that it started the dialogue between our police and communities. That’s what’s going to make California better,” Lawrence said. “We have to find a way so the communities trust the police and police trust communities.”

Contact Alex Casey at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @acasey_dc.