The Looming Fight Over How to Police the Police

The decision last month not to prosecute the police officers who shot and killed Stephon Clark has added renewed urgency to the debate over police shootings in this state. And the state’s lawmakers have plunged in headfirst this year with a pair of dueling bills to help deal with the issue.

Both aim to reduce the number of police shootings, but they come from opposite perspectives: One, Assembly Bill 392, would make it easier to criminally prosecute officers who use deadly force, and is supported by the A.C.L.U. and the family of a victim, Oscar Grant III.

The other, Senate Bill 230, would require law enforcement agencies to clearly set use-of-force policies and boost de-escalation training for officers. It’s backed by police unions.

Laurel Rosenhall, a reporter for the nonprofit state news site CALMatters, will be tracking the issue in a new podcast called “Force of Law.” I talked to her about what she’s learned and what the podcast hopes to accomplish. (Our conversation has been edited and condensed.)

Jill Cowan: Why did you and CALMatters decide to tackle this in a podcast form?

Laurel Rosenhall: This is a huge issue in the Legislature because it’s become a huge issue in so many communities around California. And the death of Stephon Clark in Sacramento really propelled it onto the front burner for the Legislature in a way that earlier shootings hadn’t done.

It’s extremely emotional and perceived as a life or death issue by both sides. And that gets to your question about why we’re doing a podcast. You know the emotion of that comes through in a podcast in a way that is different than on the printed page. And we’re really conceiving of this as a project that goes from now through October when the governor has to decide on all the bills that reach his desk.

Tell me about what it is in California’s political climate that’s giving rise to this particular debate here.

Obviously having a huge Democratic majority in the Legislature, which is around 75 percent right now, plus having a new governor who has a track record of taking groundbreaking and risky moves that ended up panning out well for him — I think those are definitely big factors in terms of the political landscape.

But I also think there are factors outside of politics that have led to this moment.

It’s been a sea change on this issue in the last decade largely because of technological changes and between the rise of social media cellphone videos and police body cameras. And so there’s just like a broader societal swell.

And then the death of Stephon Clark — because it happened in Sacramento about 10 miles away from the state capitol — seems to have made an impact in ways that other police shootings have not.

One thing that’s interesting is that even with basically total Democratic control, the state’s approach to this issue is still very divided. Can you talk about that?

In Sacramento, that’s where the most drama happens: when the Democrats are not on the same page about any given policy and policing issues has been an area where they’re just not all aligned.


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