California Fails to Watch the Watchmen

Lawmakers proclaim progressivism while ignoring police accountability

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California’s bigwigs often trumpet the state’s progressive culture and politics, but the state’s records and policies reflect an entirely different story.

While accounting for 12 percent of the nation’s population, California accounts for 16 percent of persons shot and killed by police. Of the 162 people shot and killed by police in California in 2017, 56 percent were Latinx or Black. Latinx and Black people account for only about 45 percent of the state’s population.

State law enables this unjust police violence — which disproportionately affects communities of color — and shields those who abuse the power of their badges.

California is one of only five states that does not have total authority to decertify or fire police officers. It may only do so if the officer’s certification was originally obtained fraudulently. Instead, each of California’s 509 police departments has the power, with little oversight, to decide whether or not a violation warrants desertification or firing of an officer.

Illustration by Ania Webb

California’s Department of Justice (DOJ) maintains a policy of reviewing these violations only if “all appropriate local resources for [remedy] have been exhausted,” showcasing the state’s unwillingness to hold police accountable.

As well as providing few checks and balances, California is one of three states, along with New York and Delaware, whose laws explicitly protect police officers’ personnel records under confidentiality, barring them from public access.

State officials also acknowledged that even if verified complaints of misconduct were on an officer’s record, departments are not legally obligated to check those records when hiring new officers. In theory, an officer with a record of misconduct could be hired without public knowledge.

The fact that communities have no right to know the track records of their police officers is terrible enough. Without an avenue of accountability, communities are left at the mercy of the hiring practices of their local PD, which aren’t always as rigorous as they should be.

The state’s lax approach to police accountability is due in part to the influence of police unions. In the past election cycle alone, three of California’s statewide police unions donated a total of nearly $6 million, a quarter of the amount donated by political action committees (PACs) during the same time period, to political campaigns for state office and in support of various ballot initiatives.

Some of these contributions are directed at district attorneys who are responsible for bringing charges against officers. Sacramento prosecutor Anne Marie Schubert, for instance, received a total of $13,000 from two local police unions to her re-election campaign less than a week after the shooting of Stephon Clark. These donations are an uncomfortably unsubtle message that casts a shadow of doubt over Schubert’s objectivity.

The relationships between police and district attorneys’ offices go far deeper than campaign contributions. There exists a longstanding and obvious symbiotic relationship between law enforcement and the court system, each depending on the other for the legal system to function. This presents a clear conflict of interest when police officers run afoul of the law.

The district attorney, an elected position, is under pressure to maintain a high conviction rate. Otherwise, the numbers can lead to their office being painted as ineffective or “soft on crime” in election season. However, a prosecutor’s success greatly depends on a close and amicable relationship with police to corroborate their arguments in court.

This dependency can sway a prosecutor’s judgment when they’re posed the question of whether or not to indict a police officer. Without access to law enforcement information and testimony, a prosecutor would be hard pressed to function with any degree of efficacy.

Clearly, prosecutors cannot be counted upon to fairly evaluate cases involving the same individuals whom they depend on to do their jobs, and who also have the power to retaliate against being prosecuted by denying access in the future.

Even bills like California’s AB 931, an admirable and essential piece of legislation that would authorize use of force only when “necessary” instead of “reasonable,” don’t address the problematic relationship between local prosecutors and police departments. Reducing the hurdles to bring charges against officers who abuse their power over others means little, if prosecutors still have compelling incentives not to charge them.

Bills to address this relationship, such as AB 284, have been introduced before in the state legislative branch. AB 284 would instate a statewide review board under the California DOJ to investigate officer-involved shootings.

However, the bill was thoroughly gutted by the Senate Public Safety Committee to merely require the DOJ to conduct a study on police violence and present a written report. A simple written report is a grossly insufficient measure to address an issue so widespread and disturbingly evident. The state must move beyond such paltry actions to implement long-term solutions to end police violence and homicides.

After being gutted, AB 284 was left in the legislative limbo of “suspense file,” where the Appropriations Committee suspends discussion around proposed bills indefinitely, sending them to a quiet death without a floor vote.

Residents of California cannot tolerate our legislators’ unwillingness to address the state’s inflated contribution to national police brutality statistics. California lawmakers must establish and fund an independent review board to review each and every fatality and allegation of unnecessary force. Make it clear that your vote is contingent upon California taking this necessary step to living up to its claims of progressivism.