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Activists Call For Change In California's Use-Of-Force Laws

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Local and state prosecutors now agree California law gives no reason to charge two Sacramento police officers who killed a black man. That is why supporters of the family of Stephon Clark are calling to change the law. The central question is when police or other people can use deadly force when they say they feel threatened. Here's Capital Public Radio's Ben Adler.

BEN ADLER, BYLINE: Everyone expected Attorney General Xavier Becerra's decision, but his words gave no comfort to Stephon Clark's family, nor community members furious over his death. Like the Sacramento County district attorney four days earlier, Becerra laid out the state and federal laws that govern when police or anyone else, he said, can use deadly force.

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XAVIER BECERRA: You have the right to defend yourself if you are in imminent danger of death.

ADLER: In other words, self-defense. Stanford criminal law professor Robert Weisberg says that's longstanding law, with additional benefit of the doubt given to police officers.

ROBERT WEISBERG: You're allowed to use deadly force if it is actually necessary to prevent deadly force from being used against you or others. Or if it reasonably appears that it is necessary, and that's the big caveat here.

ADLER: That caveat infuriates the law's critics. Tanya Faison heads the Sacramento Chapter of Black Lives Matter. She told Morning Edition Tuesday, it's too easy for police officers to avoid accountability.

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TANYA FAISON: The use-of-force policy is very weak, and it's very subjective. So if you say that you fear for your life, then it validates if you kill somebody. But you can't show physical proof that you feared for your life.

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST)

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting) Stephon Clark.

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER: (Chanting) Say his name.

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting) Stephon Clark.

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER: (Chanting) Say his name.

ADLER: Protesters have filled the streets the last few days, shutting down Sacramento's largest mall and marching through wealthy neighborhoods. They're increasingly channeling their outrage into changing California's use-of-force law. After Clark's death last year, lawmakers tried but failed to raise the standard from reasonable to necessary. This year, there are two bills. The one from last year is back. And for the first time, law enforcement groups have their own proposal. It keeps the reasonable standard, but funds and implements new training. Brian Marvel heads PORAC, a state federation of local police unions.

BRIAN MARVEL: It's important that we're not creating an after-the-fact piece of legislation that criminalizes officers for doing their job and for protecting themselves and the community.

ADLER: He argues the training will help officers make better decisions under pressure, which in turn will reduce unnecessary deaths. But that's not nearly enough for backers of the necessary bill. The two sides spent the last half year trying to reach consensus but broke talks off last month and introduced their rival bills. Democrat Toni Atkins, who leads the state Senate and presided over those negotiations, says it's time for everyone to hammer out a deal.

TONI ATKINS: Additional pressure needs to be applied to both sides. Yes, we have got to have compromises. But the people are at the table. We just need to make sure they understand this has got to be addressed timely.

ADLER: Robert Weisberg, the Stanford Law professor, offered one idea for a possible compromise between reasonable and necessary that could be used in court.

WEISBERG: Here's a checklist of things that police officers were told to think about before using deadly force. You, the jury, should decide whether the police officer followed those criteria.

ADLER: But, he adds, striking that deal will be very, very difficult. For NPR News, I'm Ben Adler in Sacramento. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.


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