The California Senate voted Sunday to require the state's top prosecutor to investigate all police shootings that kill an unarmed civilian, advancing one of the highest profile reforms introduced this year in response to the killing of George Floyd.
The Senate OK'd the bill despite opposition from Attorney General Xavier Becerra, who has called a previous version of the bill “untenable and unreasonable” because it would cost his office up to $80 million a year. But the legislation easily got enough votes to pass the Senate with bipartisan support and will soon head toward a final vote in the state Assembly.
“I can assure you if white Americans were being killed at the same rate as African Americans and Latinos are being killed, not only in this state but across this country, you would be calling for the disbandment of police departments all across this state,” said Sen. Steven Bradford, a Democrat from Gardena. “Because it is black and brown people, people that you have never ever truly valued their lives in this country, it's like, ‘Oh, they must have deserved it.’"
Becerra opposed an earlier version of the bill, which would have given local law enforcement agencies discretion to ask for an investigation. Becerra's office has said it is still reviewing the latest amendments.
Assemblyman Kevin McCarty, a Democrat from Sacramento, has tried for years to get the bill passed but has been unable to overcome objections from the Attorney General's Office. This year, Floyd's killing in police custody has prompted a worldwide movement that has also pushed reforms to the forefront in state Legislatures.
That momentum also led the Senate on Sunday to approve legislation that would ban police officers from using choke holds and carotid holds. A choke hold applies pressure to a person's windpipe while a carotid hold applies pressure to a person's carotid artery, which slows the flow of blood to the brain.
Most law enforcement agencies in California have already banned choke holds after state and federal courts have found departments that use them are liable for damages in cases of death or serious injury. But the carotid hold is more common.
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Floyd died after a police officer put his knee on Floyd’s neck. It wasn’t a carotid hold, but the incident — which was filmed and quickly spread on social media — prompted police departments to rethink their use of dangerous neck holds. Police departments in Los Angeles, San Francisco and San Diego banned the use of carotid holds.
Newsom also ordered the Commission on Police Officer Standards to stop teaching officers how to use the hold.
Some Republicans have declined to support similar bills and many of them abstained from voting on Sunday. Sen. Jim Nielsen, a Republican from Red Bluff, voted against the bill requiring independent investigations of police shootings, calling it “another overreaction.”
“This is really headed towards open season on law enforcement professionals who sacrifice their lives every day for us,” Nielsen said.
Sen. Holly Mitchell, a Democrat from Los Angeles, scoffed at those comments, calling the legislation an “appropriate level of accountability.”
“How, pray tell, is that disrespecting and not honoring law enforcement?” Mitchell said.
The bill also faces objections from police reform groups that say it doesn’t go far enough to create an independent investigator. They believe the attorney general’s office is too tied to law enforcement.
The legislation sets up an odd battle between Democratic lawmakers who control the Legislature and the state’s top law enforcement officer, also a progressive Democrat.
“If he wanted to, he could prioritize independent investigations for police deadly force,” said Assemblyman Kevin McCarty of Sacramento. “He could join five other states, embrace this common sense reform and be on the right side of history.”
Becerra has said his office has often intervened to investigate killings by police, including the 2018 fatal shooting of vandalism suspect Stephon Clark in Sacramento. His office currently is investigating allegations police in Vallejo in the San Francisco Bay Area acted improperly when they killed Sean Monterrosa while responding to a looting call during recent protests, then destroyed key evidence.
Clark was found with only a cellphone; Monterrosa with only a hammer.
McCarty’s bill would make those investigations mandatory by a department that already lacks sufficient resources, Becerra said in a letter of opposition even before the bill was amended.
"We are not equipped or resourced to take on this work on a routine basis,” Becerra said. “Our small team of investigators and prosecutors have not a fraction of the capacity possessed by our local partners.”