State lawmakers want to change guidelines for police use of lethal force

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — California lawmakers proposed a dramatic change Tuesday in the standard under which police officers can use deadly force, in the wake of the fatal police shooting of Stephon Clark.

Joined by relatives of the 22-year-old unarmed black man whose death last month has sparked days of protests in Sacramento, legislators announced a bill replacing the current “reasonable force” rule with a stricter “necessary force” standard.

The legislation would authorize officers use deadly force “only when it is necessary to prevent imminent and serious bodily injury or death — that is, if, given the totality of the circumstances, there was no reasonable alternative to using deadly force, including warnings, verbal persuasion, or other nonlethal methods of resolution or de-escalation,” according to a statement from Democratic Assemblywoman Shirley Weber of San Diego, a co-author of the measure.

The bill is known as the Police Accountability and Community Protection Act.

The proposal also would establish that a homicide by an officer is “not justified if the officer’s gross negligence contributed to making the force ‘necessary,'” the ACLU of California said.

“It’s time for California to modernize our century-old deadly force standard,” said Assemblyman Kevin McCarty, a co-author, said in a statement.

Peter Bibring, police practices director of the ACLU of California, which is pushing for the change, called the legislation groundbreaking.

“The killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, and so many others since, have laid bare this truth: our country’s laws protect the police, not the people,” he said in a statement.

The lawmakers said police shot and killed 162 people in California last year, only half of whom were armed with guns. Police departments in the state have some of the highest rates of killings by police in the nation, they said.

“Existing use-of-force laws have made an encounter with law enforcement — no matter how ordinary and no matter whether an individual is unarmed or even cooperative — into one that ends in the death of a civilian,” Weber said in a statement.

“The worst possible outcome is increasingly the only outcome, especially in communities of color.”

Clark’s shooting death caused outrage among residents who took to the streets to demand the officers be held accountable. Sacramento police have said the officers fired only because they thought their lives were at stake.

Clark was shot by police on the evening of March 18 in his grandmother’s yard after they responded to a 911 call about a man who was breaking car windows.

The officers told investigators they opened fired after Clark turned and advanced at them holding what they believed was a gun, police said. A cell phone — but no weapon — was found near his body.

Police at the time said officers fired 20 shots at Clark.

An independent autopsy found that Clark was shot eight times, and six of those wounds were in his back, according to Dr. Bennet Omalu, the forensic pathologist retained by Clark’s family to conduct a second autopsy.

Clark also received a gunshot wound to his side and another to his left thigh, Omalu said.

Clark’s death was “not instantaneous,” Omalu told reporters, estimating the father of two died between 3 to 10 minutes after being shot.

“You could reasonably conclude that he received seven gunshot wounds from his back,” Omalu said. Each of those bullets possessed “a fatal capacity,” he said.

“Meaning that, out of all the seven, all he needed to have died was just one of the seven.”

An autopsy conducted by the Sacramento County Coroner determined the cause of death as multiple gunshot wounds, and the manner of death was homicide, according to a preliminary report. But authorities have not released the full report.

The fatal shooting was recorded by two officers’ body cameras and from a police helicopter.

The videos showed a brief encounter between police and Clark, lasting less than a minute, from the moment one of the officers spotted him in the driveway and yelled, “Hey, show me your hands. Stop. Stop.”

In the dark, the two officers chased Clark into the backyard of his grandmother’s home.

“Show me your hands!” one of the officers yelled. “Gun, gun, gun.”

Police then opened fire. Clark crumpled to the ground, momentarily tried to crawl before falling motionless as more shots erupted around him.

California Attorney General Xavier Becerra is holding an independent investigation into the shooting and a review of police procedures.

Two officers — one of whom is black — have been placed on administrative leave amid a use-of-force investigation.