Last summer, when California passed a landmark law meant to reduce police shootings, lawmakers praised the mothers, fathers and activists who had packed the Capitol throughout the year. They wore T-shirts memorializing shooting victims. Filled hallways with songs and prayer. Laid flowers at the doorsteps of politicians’ offices. And lined up, sometimes by the hundreds, to share their grief at every hearing on the bill.
“The consistency with which people have shown up over and over and over again,” state Sen. Holly Mitchell, a Los Angeles Democrat, said in June 2019, as the bill won a key vote, “is a powerful testament.”
But showing up over and over again was not an option this year, as the Capitol was closed to the public by the coronavirus pandemic, and the Legislature took a two-month pause during the stay-at-home order. Lobbying visits were replaced by phone calls and Zooms. Lawmakers held fewer hearings. Public testimony often amounted to a chaotic conference call.
And so, even as the nation roiled after a Minneapolis police officer killed George Floyd — and lawmakers introduced several bills in response — advocacy inside the statehouse largely withered. Activists filled the streets but couldn’t fill the Capitol. The truncated legislative session and the inability to turn out the masses made it harder to pressure lawmakers.
The result: Lawmakers this week sent a few diluted police reform bills to the governor, while the most controversial proposals stalled in the Democratic-controlled Legislature.
“The ability to have folks show up and hold governors and legislators accountable makes a difference. Members of their district coming to their office and saying, ‘How are you voting on this?’ It makes a difference,” said Natasha Minsker, a lobbyist for criminal justice advocacy groups, including Smart Justice California.
“And regular people don’t have the cellphone numbers of their legislators, but every police chief does. … Regular people just don’t have access right now.”
Activists tried to pump up their presence from afar with celebrity endorsements on social media. Kim Kardashian was among those urging state legislators to pass a bill creating a statewide system to yank an officer’s badge in cases of misconduct or criminal conviction — a proposal police fought as being unfair to their due process rights. The measure died when the Assembly did not take it up for a vote by Monday’s midnight deadline to pass bills for the year.
A bill to make more police misconduct records available to the public also stalled late Monday night, when the Senate ran out of time to bring it up for a final vote. And that was after it had been narrowed to mollify law enforcement’s objections, removing a provision to make public all complaints of excessive force, whether or not they were substantiated.
The Senate also failed to discuss or vote on a bill prohibiting police from using tear gas or rubber bullets on demonstrators, which police said would leave them with only more dangerous options for dispersing unlawful crowds.
Bills that did pass muster
Lawmakers did pass a measure requiring the state attorney general to investigate when police kill unarmed civilians, a proposal that has stalled in years past. Supporters see it as a significant step to build trust by making investigations more independent, though the final version was neither a high priority for activists nor a target of police opposition.
The Legislature also passed a bill banning police from using chokeholds and neck restraints, which police also did not oppose. Many departments already ban those tactics but the bill would make a uniform policy for the whole state.
“Overall, we had a good push,” said Assemblyman Kevin McCarty, a Sacramento Democrat who carried the bill to require independent investigations of deadly police shootings. “Did we get every bill? No.”
McCarty led an effort for the Black caucus to pass several bills advancing racial justice, including succesful measures to study reparations, require ethnic studies courses and curb racial discrimination in jury selection. But he agreed that the pandemic complicated things for those seeking big changes to policing.
“It was time and the police lobby,” McCarty said. “You have the union and the police chiefs calling members and saying we’ve done enough.”
Shortened legislative year
He said the shortened legislative year meant legislators didn’t have time to dissect complicated areas of the law or hash out differences over months of negotiations.
“We weren’t able to have robust committee hearings and dig into these issues,” McCarty said.
Last year, by contrast, when lawmakers passed the bill setting a tougher standard for police to use deadly force, it was after a year and a half of hearings at the Capitol and many private negotiations between civil rights advocates and law enforcement lobbyists. Nothing even close was possible this year.
Police said the circumstances left them hampered, too.
“COVID-19 put a serious damper on everybody’s ability to effectively have negotiations over bills,” said Brian Marvel, president of the influential federation of police unions, the Peace Officers Research Association of California.
“They are just not as effective as when you are face to face, and able to pass pieces of paper across the table from each other.”
Police unions have long been big political donors to both Democrats and Republicans in California. The Peace Officers Research Association of California has spent nearly $1 million on state political campaigns since last year, records show, including donations of $280,000 to the California Democratic Party and $152,500 to the California Republican Party. It wrote checks to the campaigns of 11 sitting legislators in mid-August as lawmakers prepared to vote on numerous bills. Marvel said the timing reflected nothing more than when his board held a quarterly meeting and approved the donations.
Marvel and Tom Saggau, a spokesman for police unions in Los Angeles, San Francisco and San Jose, both said they want to work with lawmakers next year to negotiate a bill that would create a system for decertifying police in limited circumstances. Their strategy is similar to how they approached the use of force debate in recent years — lobbying against an early version of the bill and then coming back the following year suggesting compromises.
“Let’s get to work now. We are ready,” Saggau said. “If we get a phone call and someone says they want to work on this, we will put our masks on, jump on a plane and get there.”
Willingness to compromise is a fairly new dynamic among the law enforcement lobby, said Sen. Nancy Skinner, a Berkeley Democrat who carried the bill to expand public access to police misconduct records.
“Law enforcement was not enthusiastically embracing many of these reforms, but different than other years they were more willing to talk about it,” she said. “They didn’t go wholesale in opposition to all the bills. … Law enforcement in general is in a reflective moment in California.”
Skinner disputes the contention that activists weren’t heard, stressing that the Black Lives Matter movement made an impact in the Legislature this year.
“Everyone in California who felt compelled and motivated to act in some way after (Floyd’s) killing should feel very good that the Legislature was responsive. While we didn’t get it all across the finish line, we were responsive,” she said.
But compromises that amount to symbolic victories without making substantive change will leave activists dissatisfied — and potentially disillusioned, said Jody David Armour, a University of Southern California law school professor who studies race in legal decision making.
“We wag our fingers piously at protesters and tell them to cast a ballot, just go vote, that’s more productive and reasonable to get what you want in the way of real reform,” he said.
“If the Legislature can’t deliver it, what does that say about the efficacy of the ballot?”
CalMatters.org is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media venture explaining California policies and politics.