California Bills Would Take Badges From Misbehaving Officers
Tuesday, March 16, 2021
Photo by Matthew Bowler
California would start licensing law enforcement officers, create a way to end their careers for misbehavior including racial bias, and make it easier to sue them for monetary damages under an expanded version of legislation that died at the end of last year’s legislative session, supporters said Tuesday.
California is one of just four states without a way to decertify police officers, alongside Hawaii, New Jersey and Rhode Island.
“These are officers who have abused their authority and violated the public trust, and we all agree they must be held accountable," said state Sen. Steven Bradford, who is carrying the most sweeping of several decertification proposals. “We (in California) claim to be a leader in all things — we shouldn’t be an outlier when it comes to police reform.”
The bill by Bradford, who heads the Senate Public Safety Committee, would require the state’s Commission on Peace Officer Standards and Training to issue each officer a proof of eligibility or basic certificate. Currently, the state licenses more than 200 professions and trades including doctors, lawyers, and contractors, but not law enforcement officers.
Bradford’s bill would give the commission the power to investigate officers and revoke their eligibility for wrongs including using excessive force, sexual assault, making a false arrest or report, or participating in a law enforcement gang. Some of those investigations could be retroactive under his revised proposal.
Police could also lose their badges for “acts demonstrating bias” based on race, religion, sexual orientation or mental disability, among other criteria.
Bradford said in his bill that three of every four unarmed persons killed by police were people of color.
“Decertifying police officers (who abuse their power) ... is key to building trust between the police and the communities and changing the culture of policing in this state,” said Cephus Johnson, a criminal justice reform advocate widely known as Uncle Bobby X whose nephew, Oscar Grant, was killed by transit police in the San Francisco Bay Area in 2009.
Bradford's measure is co-authored by Sen. Toni Atkins, his fellow Democrat who heads the California Senate, signaling her support.
Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon previously said he also backs the concept, but there are three competing bills awaiting action in his chamber.
Two bills, one by Assemblyman Jim Cooper, himself a former sheriff's captain, and the other by fellow Democratic Assemblyman Rudy Salas, both have a much stronger law enforcement representation on the statewide panel considering decertification than would Bradford's bill. Neither includes the licensing or lawsuit provisions in Bradford's bill.
The third bill, by Republican Assemblyman Jordan Cunningham, would require local law enforcement agencies to complete misconduct investigations even if the officer resigns. The practice of ending investigation after an officer resigns has allowed questionable officers to simply move to another department.
A related bill by Assemblyman Ash Kalra would require law enforcement agencies to disqualify officers who have been members of a hate group or participated in hate group activities or public expressions of hate, though critics said the bill's definition is overly broad.
The latest efforts come after Bradford’s previous attempt died without a vote in August despite national outrage over the death of George Floyd in the custody of Minneapolis police and support from entertainers including Rihanna, Mariah Carey, Robert De Niro and Kim Kardashian West.
Law enforcement unions and associations said again Tuesday that they support having a way to permanently weed out bad officers. But they objected last year to Bradford's proposed makeup of a nine-member disciplinary board they said would have been biased against police.
Bradford’s revised bill includes two current or former officers on the board, one fewer than last year, a change he said was needed because the panel “should be a reflection of the community.”
California Police Chiefs Association president Eric Nunez and unions representing officers in Los Angeles, San Francisco and San Jose all said the debate comes down to whether officers deserve what Nunez called a “fair and judicious process.”
"(U)nfortunately Senator Bradford is intent on making a political point instead of creating good policy,” the unions said in a joint statement.
Brian Marvel, president of the rank-and-file Peace Officers Research Association of California, said Bradford's bill "would potentially penalize even the most respectful officers for placing themselves in harm’s way to keep our families and communities safe.”
It would make it easier to sue police and their employers for depriving plaintiffs of their constitutional rights, but would strengthen the requirement that governments pay for civil penalties against their employees.
The bill says current limited immunity from lawsuits “too often lead to officers escaping accountability in civil courts, even when they have broken the law or violated the rights of members of the public ... especially (with) the use of excessive force.”
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