Gov. Gavin Newsom signs modest slate of police reform bills: ‘We have a lot more to do’

While the results fell far short of what activists had hoped for in the midst of a nationwide movement to rein in police power, California lawmakers touted their steps in that direction Wednesday as Gov. Gavin Newsom signed bills meant to overhaul law enforcement in the state.

One of the new laws bans officers from using the carotid “sleeper” restraint, a neck hold that can turn deadly when it is applied improperly. Newsom had earlier this summer directed the state’s law enforcement standards commission to stop offering training on the tactic, and many departments had already banned it.

Another law requires California’s attorney general, rather than local authorities, to conduct the investigations into certain deadly police shootings, in a bid to improve public trust of those investigations. And a third bolsters the authority of civilian panels overseeing county sheriff’s departments.

Still, the ambitions of civil liberties groups and police reform activists had been bigger in the wake of the Minneapolis police killing of George Floyd and the massive protests it sparked throughout California.

Lawmakers this summer proposed a much more wide-reaching slate of bills that would have created a process for permanently revoking the badges of problem officers, bolstered public access to police misconduct records, required officers to intervene if they witness excessive force, and sharply limited the use of crowd control tactics like rubber bullets and tear gas. But amid a chaotic end to the Legislature’s session as well as resistance from the state’s powerful law enforcement groups, those proposals never made it to Newsom’s desk.

“None of these bills are easy,” Newsom said in a Zoom-based bill-signing ceremony Wednesday afternoon. “So many constituencies, so many nuances, a lot of folks pushing back — but I think under the circumstances, the fact that we were able to get this far is a very big deal.”

Still, Newsom said, pounding his desk for emphasis, “I recognize we have a lot more to do in this space and we are not walking away from this responsibility.”

Asm. Kevin McCarty, D-Sacramento, noted he had repeatedly brought his proposal for independent police shooting investigations before the Legislature in prior years, but said the outrage this summer propelled it to finally pass.

“After three-and-a-half tries I have this bill before you today,” McCarty told Newsom. “This has been an effort before George Floyd — but really the murder of George Floyd before our eyes put these issues in the spotlight, and it allowed us to get bipartisan support, which I’m proud of.”

The bill reflected the compromises that defined this legislative session, though. Unlike earlier versions of McCarty’s legislation, the narrower measure that became law only requires the attorney general to investigate fatal police shootings of unarmed people, as opposed to all deaths at the hands of police. It also makes the requirement contingent on lawmakers providing funding for the Department of Justice to conduct those investigations, estimated at $80 million per year.

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Author: Nico Savidge