A new law adopted last year in California as part of a series of law enforcement reforms will lay investigations of police shootings of unarmed civilians at the doorstep of the Department of Justice and the attorney general.
The law took effect July 1, and establishes a new set of protocols for dealing with police shootings of unarmed civilians. The law also opens DOJ field offices throughout the state that must be notified by local agencies when shooting incidents occur.
The protocols were announced recently by California Attorney General Rob Bonta and are intended to create transparency and objectivity when investigating such shootings.
Formerly, such investigations were left to the local police agency involved and local district attorneys to determine whether the shooting was legally justified. However, amidst the death of George Floyd last year and the law enforcement reforms that swept the nation, California passed a law to give the attorney general’s office more responsibility when investigating police shootings. The premise behind the law was that the AG is “more removed from local pressures” and therefore has more objective reasoning.
According to the protocols, California’s Department of Justice will assign two teams of 33 investigators (one in Northern California and the other in Southern California) to respond to police shootings of unarmed civilians – an event that happens on average 40 to 50 times a year.
The teams are expected to work independently from local agencies, who will still conduct their own investigations as before, and will send a report determining whether or not the shooting was legally justified to the California Department of Justice Special Prosecution’s Section for a decision. A that point, there will either be a criminal charge or a written report explaining why no charges were filed.
Bonta hailed the law as a step towards rebuilding trust between law enforcement and communities.
“One of the most important tasks ahead for public safety and our society is building and maintaining trust between our communities and law enforcement,” Bonta said. “Impartial, fair investigations and independent reviews of officer-involved shootings are an essential component for achieving that.”
While many are happy with the move, calling it “progressive,” other experts in the law enforcement community, like former police officer and professor of police studies at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice Eugene O’Donnell, argue it will undermine California policing.
“The new No. 1 is ‘I could go to prison for doing my job.’ They’re being officially told, basically, by the Legislature and by the AG, to wait until they’re fired upon. And of course, the major message it sends is the best way to not be in a police shooting is to not engage anybody in the first place,” O’Donnell lamented.
Brian Marvel, president of the Peace Officers Research Association of California, said he believes the protocol is “a step in the right direction” and is good-intentioned.
“The vast majority of officer-involved shootings are justified, and I just think this is another layer of oversight,” Marvel said. “I think the AG’s office is going to find what we’re finding on the local level — that officers, they do it right and they don’t use officer-involved shootings unnecessarily.”
However, police unions in Los Angeles, San Francisco and San Jose argued that there is already a “transparent and exhaustive investigative process” with such shootings, and implied in a statement that the new law could be abused for political purposes.
“It is absolutely critical that this new process be grounded in evidence, based on the law, and not swayed by political pressure to ensure a fair process for everyone,” they said in a joint statement.