Chief Joel F. Shults, Ed.D.
Author: Chief Joel F. Shults, Ed.D.

On April 3, 2018, legislators Keven McCarty and Shirley Weber introduced the Police Accountability and Community Protection Act (AB 931) to the California Assembly.

As of this writing, I have been unable to find verbiage for the proposal, but judging from the press conference video, the intent is to accomplish a reduction in fatal shooting of suspects by police by making deadly force “necessary” rather than “reasonable.”

What’s really frightening is the stunning web of flawed thinking, bad information and unrealistic notions that came out of the mouths of those at the press conference. If given the chance in open debate, there’s not a claim being made by the sponsors and advocates that will stand up under cross examination.

1. The supporters of ab 931 ignore the sufficiency of current law

Both the “reasonable” test and the proposed “necessary” tests are officers’ predictions of the future based on a totality of circumstances at a given moment in time.

The “necessary” formula varies little from the “reasonable” formula, with only the addition of a speculative hope that an officer has that the target won’t kill or maim in the extra milliseconds that the law would afford a suspect.

Whether the bill, if passed, will result in more police officers being convicted of crimes remains to be seen. Surely a higher legal standard will result in more lawsuits, might result in more officer injuries, and likely will result in less policing and more danger to the public.

What it won’t do is reduce “senseless” police shootings, because the basic calculations of imminent serious harm don’t change. The one thing the bill will accomplish is to afford its sponsors the opportunity to inflame fears, incite anti-police behavior and garner favor from their well-funded political allies.

2. The supporters of ab 931 ignore evidence of police restraint

The ACLU spokesperson at the press conference said, “Deadly force can no longer be the first response to a perceived threat.” This kind of presumptuous statement reflects exactly the opposite of what happens in the real world of police decision-making.

Law enforcement officers in the U.S. are masters at avoiding the use of deadly force. With millions of police contacts every day, the rate of police use of force is very small, despite the fact that the majority of officers face deadly force decisions frequently in their careers.

Another frequently repeated drumbeat was for more accountability. The implication is that cops want to kill and can get away with it. Simply not true. Perhaps the proponents don’t realize that multiple investigations by multiple agencies and multiple reviews by multiple levels of criminal and civil attorneys are already embedded practice with officer-involved shootings. Officers face federal and state civil litigation, federal and state criminal prosecution, department discipline and often career-ending scrutiny.

3. The supporters of ab 931 ignore laws of science and rules for rational discourse

The sponsors and supporters are aiming for the heart and not the head. Emotional pleas that ignore facts make great press conferences and poor laws. Human capacity and limitations that include brain science, anatomy and sensory processing under stress constitute a massive amount of research and data. The truth is found in science, not emotion.

We can’t expect legislators to know what it’s like to make the kinds of decisions they presume to govern, but a grasp of the facts is a reasonable expectation. Speakers who listed Michael Brown as an unarmed child killed by police, or added Trayvon Martin to the roll call of police killings, lose all credibility.

4. The supporters of ab 931 ignore the realities of “calling for backup” and other alternatives

The ACLU spokesperson claimed that officers would forfeit the justifiability of deadly force “if they rushed in instead of keeping their distance and calling for backup.” I’ve written about the myth that backup solves all problems. There may, in fact, be an inverse relationship in the safety of both the officer and suspect with multiple officers present.

Availability of immediate less-lethal weaponry and special teams is a function of time and resources – neither of which is a luxury always afforded.

Conclusion

I am never opposed to reforming, re-thinking and revising policy and training. But if those things are done to further political careers, pander to voters and soothe emotions rather than to rationally solve problems, then our laws will fail to protect and serve the citizenry.

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