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Bill to reform police use of force gains support in Oakland

California police kill more people than in any other state in the country, according to data compiled by the Mapping Police Violence project.

Each of two bills, introduced within one day of each other, are making their way through the state legislature and address police use of force. One bill is backed by law enforcement groups and the other has support from people impacted most by police violence and grassroots advocacy groups.

It was the people’s legislation, Assembly Bill 392, that drew a crowd under a hot sun at Oakland City Hall Thursday.

Nik Wojcik/SFBay Cat Brooks of Anti Police-Terror Project speaks at Assembly Bill 392 press conference at City Hall in Oakland, Calif., April 18, 2019.

Cat Brooks, executive director of the Justice Teams Network, co-founder of the Anti Police-Terror Project and former Oakland mayoral candidate, wants people to understand the difference between the two:

“(Assembly Bill) 392 simply says that law enforcement officers must exhaust every single possible alternative before using deadly force.”

Brooks continued:

“What is important to know is that, despite its amendments, (Senate Bill) 230 still does not go far enough. It allows police officers to shoot people while they are fleeing, even for minor offenses. It does not change the standard for murder to necessary, it maintains it as a reasonable standard, and it also does not hold law enforcement accountable for creating the conditions that would make a shoot necessary. These are major differences and they play into the scenario far too often when we lose our loved ones in our community.”

The bill that Brooks, four Oakland City Council members, and several civil liberties groups, including those representing victims’ families, are throwing support behind goes further to curb the use of force and hold officers accountable than the competing measure.

From 2013 through 2017, police in California killed 929 people, nearly twice as many as Texas, which ranked second with 493 deaths over the same period. Florida, Arizona and Georgia complete the top five with 433, 239 and 171, respectively, according to Mapping Police Violence.

AB 392 is statewide legislation introduced by assemblymembers Shirley Weber and Kevin McCarty, though Oakland Councilmember Nikki Fortunato Bas introduced a resolution to “put Oakland on the record” in support of the bill’s approval and in hopes it will encourage other elected state officials to take notice.

Nik Wojcik/SFBay Oakland Councilmember Nikki Fortuano Bas speaks to a crowd at City Hall in Oakland, Calif. prior to presenting to the Rules and Legislation Committe her resolution to support Assembly Bill 392, April, 18, 2019.

Bas said from the steps of City Hall:

“This bill will update California’s outdated use of force laws, which date back to 1872, by requiring that law enforcement officers use deescalation tactics whenever possible and avoid using deadly force unless it is the only way to prevent death or serious bodily injury.”

Recognizing California’s dire use of force statistics, Bas continued:

“[T]he data around police use of force is deeply concerning. Police kill people at a rate 37 percent higher in California than the national average. Three out of four of those people have been people of color and black people are three times likely, three times more likely to be the victims of police violence. In 2017, California police officers killed 172 people, half of whom were unarmed.”

Among others gathered at Thursday’s press conference, held just prior to the resolution’s hearing by the Rules and Legislation Committee, was Oscar Grant’s uncle, Cephus “Uncle Bobby” Johnson.

Nik Wojcik/SFBay Cephus “Uncle Bobby” Johnson, uncle of Oscar Grant and member of California Families United 4 Justice, speaks out in support of Assembly Bill 392 at City Hall in Oakland, Calif., April 18, 2019.

Johnson spoke on behalf of California Families United for Justice, an organization largely comprised of family and friends of those killed by police and which cosponsored AB 392, for obvious reasons. He said:

“Had this bill been in place during the time that Oscar was murdered, I am clear that Oscar would be living today.”

The tragedy of Oscar Grant’s murder Jan. 1, 2009 at Fruitvale BART Station served as a catalyst for the most recent evolution of civil rights action, and specifically for a demand of reform in police use of force policies.

However, Grant was hardly the first and unfortunately far from the last man to be killed by police. Speakers Thursday invoked names of other men killed at the hands of law enforcement: Marcellus Toney died in police custody in 2018 after being tased; Joshua Pawlik, an armed but homeless and unconscious man suffering from mental illness gunned down by Oakland police March 11, 2018; and of course, Oscar Grant, an unarmed 22-year-old shot in the back on a BART platform New Year’s Eve.

Derrick Morgan, of Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, said:

“Let those names strike with shame on those who think we cannot do better.”

He added:

“We have the right to demand better from our police. Our communities trust and lift up these people to do everything in their power to save lives. Thankfully, most of them do. But we need this bill today for those officers who abuse that trust, those who abandon their responsibilities, those who abandon common sense, those who endanger us all with reckless tactics, and then take the life of a mother’s child.”

Nik Wojcik/SFBay Cat Brooks of Anti Police-Terror Project stands with Derrick Morgan, Marc Philpart and others prior to an Assembly Bill 392 press conference at Oakland City Hall, April 18, 2019. (Nik Wojcik/SFBay)

Several speakers hailed AB 392 as “common sense” and urged Oakland City Council to support and the state to pass what Oakland-based civil rights attorney John Burris referred to as “one of the most significant, important pieces of legislation that’s come down in many, many years.”

That sentiment is one shared by Marc Philpart of PolicyLink:

“This is one the greatest civil justice, civil rights issues of our time, and it goes way beyond the tragedy of a life lost. What we look at is the impact on communities of color, the violence that they experience, the violence and the tragedy of losing a loved one extends beyond the individual who was actually murdered. It blankets the community in ways that allow people to live in fear and have a stifled sense of what they can accomplish.

Philpart added:

“[W]e believe that if we are to expand opportunities for people of color in this state, if we’re to really bring about justice in a powerful way, we have to change the way our communities are policed.”

Shortly after Thursday’s press conference, Oakland City Council’s Rules and Legislation Committee moved forward the supporting resolution.

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