‘Under current law, an officer can assume they are armed, and kill them if they flinch’
The questionable killing of Stephon Clark, an unarmed Black man in Sacramento, by a barrage of police bullets may be the catalyst to raising the legal threshold on when police can use deadly force.
The police responded to a car break-in. They chased Clark into his dark backyard. An officer shouted “gun” and they fired 20 shots at the 22-year-old, hitting him eight times, mostly in the back, according to a NPR piece by Martin Kaste.
Clark was armed with a cellphone.
Currently, police in California may use deadly force when it’s objectively reasonable. The law allows using “all necessary means to effect the arrest,” according to a New Republic article by Matt Ford.
“That threshold almost always benefits the police, since judges and juries tend to be extremely deferential when assessing whether an officer was acting reasonably in the heat of the moment,” Ford wrote.
The ACLU and Assemblywoman Shirley Weber co-wrote the proposed legislation to raise the legal threshold for the use of force. The bill that has been introduced in Sacramento would only allow officers to use deadly force to prevent imminent physical injury.
“Under the current standard, if there’s a threat, an officer can use deadly force even if there were alternatives to using deadly force,” Lizzie Buchen, a legislative advocate at the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of California, told Ford “This would shift [the legal standard] so that if an officer’s feeling a threat, and there are alternatives to deadly use of force, then they need to use those first.”
Craig Lally, a union president for Los Angeles police officers, said that the bill “will either get cops killed or allow criminals to terrorize our streets unchecked,” according to the Ford article.
Buchen feels differently. “I understand law enforcement officers put their lives at risk. They have to make split-second decisions,”but the law needs to take more into account the fact that when civilians are approached by police with guns drawn, they also have to make quick decisions.
“They might be scared, they might panic. And under current law, an officer can assume they are armed, and kill them if they flinch or move in any way that can be construed as dangerous or reaching for a weapon. It’s really disturbing.”
The proposed legislation would also consider whether police officers put themselves in unjustified danger before using deadly force.
“Under current law, if an officer jumps in front of a moving vehicle, they can legally kill the driver because now they’re suddenly in harm’s way,” Buchen explained. “What this law would say is that officer needs to be held accountable for creating the necessity of killing the driver.”
If the law passes, it will be the first of its kind.
“This would certainly be unique,” Buchen said. “There’s no other state that has a state law with this kind of protection for civilians.”