Bills offer reasonable reforms on police use of force

Well-publicized incidents around California and the nation of police killing or beating suspects are producing calls for reform. In the California Legislature, more than 20 bills are under consideration, according to a tally by the Los Angeles Times.

A big problem facing any reform is the immense power acquired over the decades by the public-safety unions (police, fire and prison guards), which, after the teachers’ unions, are the most powerful political forces in the state. It was their clout with lawmakers in 1999-2000 that brought about the pension-spiking that now bedevils state and local budgets.

And, in 1977, during Jerry Brown’s first stint as governor, he signed into law Assembly Bill 301, the Peace Officers Bill of Rights, which made it difficult for citizens and the media to access police disciplinary files even in the most egregious cases of misconduct. The unions cited that law as a major reason for backing his 2010 re-election.

Five of the new bills concern regulating body cameras worn by police. According to the Times, even reform groups “fear that politicians are embracing a quick technological fix for deeper rifts between law enforcement and communities that require more comprehensive solutions, such as more funding for mental health services.”

We certainly encourage police use of body cameras. But we believe that, for now, local communities should decide their own policies, especially because buying cameras is part of local budget wrangling.

AB619 is by Assemblywoman Shirley Weber, D-San Diego. It would require state and local law enforcement “to annually report to the [state] attorney general data on the use of force by that agency’s sworn personnel.” This seems reasonable.

AB953 is by Assemblyman Kevin McCarty, D-Sacramento. It “would require the attorney general to appoint a special prosecutor to direct an independent investigation” if someone is killed by an on-duty police officer. According to Mr. McCarty, “There is skepticism in the current process where local DAs investigate cops they work most closely with.” That also seems reasonable.

Both AB619 and AB953 passed the Assembly Public Safety Committee in April and are before the Appropriations Committee.