Police unions and law enforcement groups in California scored a victory recently when they were able to shoot down a “rushed and haphazard” bill that would have made it possible to end the careers of officers with troubled histories.
The proposed bill, SB 731 by Senator Steven Bradford, would have eliminated qualified immunity for all public employees and employers and created a process to decertify officers charged with misconduct or convicted of certain crimes. Law enforcement unions such as Peace Officers Research Association of California (PORAC), California Police Chiefs Association (Cal Chiefs) and California Association of Highway Patrolmen (CAHP) argued that the system the bill would have introduced would be biased and wouldn’t have basic due process protections.
Their contention about bias stems from the disciplinary panel that the bill proposed. According to the bill, a nine-person panel would ultimately have the final say in whether an officer’s conduct was egregious enough to warrant having their badge stripped. Six of the nine panel members would be required to have backgrounds opposing police misconduct, while the other three would represent law enforcement.
Opponents of the bill contended that this required makeup would result in inherent bias against officers. Bradford argued that such a mix was required to try to restore community trust in the police and the process of disciplining officers.
Law enforcement groups worked hard to combat the bill, but they had to use some unconventional methods because of the coronavirus pandemic. With lobbyists and lawmakers isolated because of quarantine, it became a battle on social media that had to counter celebrities who were pushing for the legislation in the wake of the death of George Floyd and shooting of Jacob Blake.
In a joint press release, PORAC, Cal Chiefs and CAHP implored lawmakers to consider meaningful rather than hastily written reforms, noting that during the last months of the state’s truncated legislative session that many lawmakers were “eager to capitalize on the energy of this moment and the incredible media scrutiny of law enforcement to deliver a ‘win’ for their constituents.” They went on to argue that many of the reforms — which they said were “virtually crafted overnight and in silos” — were “aimed at fundamentally changing the practice of law enforcement in California” and thus required more time for research, vetting and analysis.
The efforts of the law enforcement groups were successful, and the bill died without a vote before the legislative session ended. Proposals to reveal more police misconduct records, require officers to intervene if they witness excessive use of force, and limit the use of rubber bullets and tear gas against protesters also died without a vote.
However, lawmakers were able to send measures to Governor Gavin Newsom that ban chokeholds and other neck restraints, require the state attorney general to investigate fatal police shootings of unarmed citizens and increase oversight of county sheriffs, among other proposals.
“To ignore the thousands of voices calling for meaningful police reform is insulting,” Bradford said. “Today, Californians were once again let down by those who were meant to represent them.”
California is one of only five states — Hawaii, New Jersey, Massachusetts and Rhode Island being the others — that currently have no way of decertifying officers who commit misconduct. Getting California out of that group was a goal of the California Legislative Black Caucus, which had support from entertainers like Rihanna, Mariah Carey, Robert De Niro and Kim Kardashian.
While law enforcement organizations worked to block this particular bill, that doesn’t mean they don’t want to find ways to permanently remove troubled officers. The goal is to prevent those officers from simply moving from one department to another.
“We absolutely support changing the licensing protocol and establishing a process to ensure we have only the best working as officers,” Cal Chiefs President Eric Nuñez said in the joint press release. “However, if we expect our peace officers to continually place themselves in harm’s way to protect our families and communities, they must operate with the peace of mind that as long as they are reasonably acting within the law, they will not be penalized for performing their duties.”
Cal Chiefs and a coalition of Black police chiefs have called for stripping officers’ training certifications following due process proceedings if they break the law or have a record of egregious misconduct.
Law enforcement organizations proposed changes to the wording of the bill, and Governor Newsom’s office also weighed in with proposed amendments. But, according to reporting from The Associated Press, Bradford rejected those amendments.
PORAC President Brian Marvel said that Bradford’s unwillingness to consider those amendments or have discussions with law enforcement officials was likely the reason the bill died.
“When you’re changing a profession, and you don’t talk to the people it’s actually affecting, I think good leaders stand up and say that’s probably not a fair process,” he told AP.
In the joint press release, Marvel emphasized the importance of collaboration between lawmakers and law enforcement:
“We completely understand and share the desire of our elected officials to improve community policing practices to better serve our communities, but there is still much work that needs to be done,” he said. “As our state legislators move these bills through the legislative process, and as the ongoing dialogue about public safety reform continues, our overarching message to them is simple — tell us what you want from law enforcement, and then let’s work together to find common ground that keeps our communities and peace officers safe. We’re here to serve you.”
The measure’s strongest opposition came from law enforcement groups and unions, but it also was opposed by organized labor. Lobbying surrounding the bill was so strong that Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon had to set up a special voicemail on his phone to field comments about the bill.
“l think there were a lot of concerns, even with some of our allies,” said Rendon, who supported the legislation.
Bradford said he is planning on trying to get the bill passed again next year. Senate President Pro Tempore Toni Atkins acknowledged that for that to happen, communication and compromise will be key.
“Clearly some colleagues felt like there needed to be more conversation, more discussion,” she told AP. “I think it is our job to make sure we keep the momentum and the conversation happening.”