California Gun Law Aims to Reduce Police Brutality. Here’s How

Stephon Clark. Michael Brown. Treyvon Martin. These are three of the many unarmed black men killed recently at the hands of police officers. How many more will lose their lives before lawmakers change the way police handle their weapons?

In Sacramento, California, protests over Stephon Clark’s death have prompted lawmakers to consider revising laws that currently allow officers to shoot “when reasonable”. The new bill, proposed in early April, states that policemen may fire their weapons “only when necessary”, according to Assemblyman Kevin McCarty (D), the bill’s co-author.

The Raw Facts

The cold, hard facts about the use of legal force against black men as compared to white men are shocking. “Black men are 20 times more likely to be killed at the hands of a law enforcement officer than young caucasian men,” McCarty said during a press conference announcing the new legislation.

In nearly every case involving the lethal shooting of black men, officers claimed to have acted in self-defense, even when they were the only ones carrying a weapon. Only a handful of times have officers been charged with any wrongdoing. “It’s clear that the current law protects the police, not the people,” said ACLU legislative advocate Lizzie Buchen after the bill was announced. The situation is particularly grim in California, where police have killed more people than in any other state, according to the ACLU.

Perceived Threat

The new bill aims at encouraging officers to attempt to defuse confrontations, and use less-lethal weapons. Lethal force could be used only as a last resort. According to current legislation, officers can shoot whenever there is reasonable fear for their safety. Such a broad, vague rule opens the door to tragedy when officers act on perceived threat. “It doesn’t mean there has to have been a threat,” Buchen said. “If a reasonable officer could have perceived a threat and responded with deadly force, then it’s legal.”

The rule of “reasonable fear” came into question recently in the case of Stephon Clark, who was shot and killed in his own backyard after police thought that he was holding a gun. In reality, he had only a cell phone in his hand. An autopsy revealed that the twenty-two-year-old father of two was shot seven times in the back while trying to escape. Video from the March 18th tragedy  shows that the police did not announce who they were, but rather shouted at Clark to “show his hands”. Then, they fired and killed Clark before he could respond.


Protests and Press Conferences

Members of Clark’s grieving family took part in various rallies held in his name and attended the press conference announcing the proposed legislation. His brother, Stevante Clark, led a protest during a Sacramento City Council meeting, forcing a 15-minute shut-down. Clark’s grandmother, Sequita Thompson, tearfully gave a moving speech during a City Hall press conference. “They didn’t have to kill him like that,” she said. “They didn’t have to shoot him this many times. Why didn’t you just shoot him in the arm, shoot him in the leg, send the dogs, send a Taser. Why? Why? Y’all didn’t have to do that.”

Steps in the Right Direction

An additional bill, Senate Bill 1421, which would force law enforcement agencies to disclose information about use-of-force cases and crimes committed by officers. The Sacramento City Council is also looking into changing their police department’s policies. New rules could prevent officers from chasing suspects the way they pursued Stephon Clark, and from turning off their microphones, as they did after shooting Clark.

Law enforcement policy reform is taking place not only in Sacramento, but in Baltimore, a city plagued by a recent scandal involving officers who kept toy guns to plant them on unarmed citizens, in case they shot or killed them “accidentally”. A federal jury convicted two Baltimore police officers of racketeering, conspiracy, and robbery in February, and Baltimore’s acting Police Commissioner, Darryl Sousa created a new corruption unit to make reform a top priority. The state of Washington has also recently approved a bill to change a state law that protected officers from being charged for using lethal force inappropriately.


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