BRIAN R. MARVEL
Last month, California’s Attorney General (AG) Rob Bonta announced the release of initial guidelines and protocols for the implementation of Assembly Bill 1506. I wanted to take this month’s message to provide you with some background on this legislation and explain how it will be implemented, as I think it is important for our members and the law enforcement community to understand. I would also like to point out that while PORAC did not support this bill or agree to the protocols now being implemented by the attorney general’s office, California law enforcement has an obligation to comply with the new law.
AB 1506 requires the California Department of Justice (DOJ) to investigate all incidents of an officer-involved shooting resulting in the death of an unarmed civilian in the state. Under AB 1506, the DOJ will work independently from local police agencies — who have previously investigated these incidents — and, upon request from a law enforcement agency, will review the local agency’s use-of-force policy and make recommendations for improvements. Most importantly, it is critical that any informal practices or unwritten policies be promptly put in writing and that copies of them be included in the investigative report, as state investigators may be required to defer to local policies.
Understanding the obligations this new law imposes can be challenging. As PORAC continues to work with our legal team to clarify the DOJ’s role and responsibilities under this new law, the following represents our understanding of the law’s mandate.
The law addresses only officer-involved shootings, or “qualified events,” that result in the death of “an unarmed civilian.” An officer-involved shooting that results in a suspect being hospitalized and injured but recovering from those injuries, even if the person was “unarmed” within the meaning of the law is not a “qualifying event.”
Additionally, there are nuances of the definition of an “unarmed civilian” that are important to understand and consider. An “unarmed civilian” is anyone “not in possession of a deadly weapon.” A deadly weapon would include objects such as knives, box cutters, metal knuckles, screwdrivers, hammers, baseball bats and clubs. In addition, all firearms and BB/pellet guns, even if unloaded or inoperable, are considered “deadly weapons” within the meaning of the law. However, “replica firearms” are not considered deadly weapons unless being used to cause death or great bodily injury. Objects that have legitimate non-weapon purposes can be considered deadly weapons when, based upon all circumstances, they are being used in a manner likely to produce death or great bodily injury.
The DOJ will be considered the “lead investigating agency” in an investigation of these events. The local district attorney’s office of the county where the officer-involved shooting occurred will work alongside the DOJ. The local law enforcement agency may also work alongside the DOJ. Again, this is why it is critical that any informal practices or unwritten polices be put in writing, as local policies will be deferred to in almost all instances. In addition, once the DOJ investigation is completed, the AG will do a criminal review of that report and file charges if warranted.
Proponents of AB 1506 argue that it will provide more transparency around officer-involved shootings of an unarmed citizen — one of the most devastating and challenging events for both citizens and officers. The law is based on a theory that turning these investigations over to a state agency will ensure that the investigation proceeds without any undue influence or bias resulting from local pressures and competing interests. The decision whether or not to criminally prosecute an officer will also be removed from local officials. However, this ignores the deep understanding and experience local law enforcement and prosecutorial agencies have within their own communities — experience and knowledge that could be important context to have while evaluating these incidents. Also, only a political neophyte believes the AG’s office is not political.
PORAC is working with the DOJ to provide recommendations that will assist with the implementation of these new protocols. While we may disagree with the premise that a state-level investigation is necessary, we certainly anticipate needing to work out some of the finer points along the way. We know the vast majority of officer-involved shootings are justified and that the attorney general’s office will likely find what we have already learned at the local level — that officers do their jobs right and do not engage in deadly officer-involved shootings unless absolutely necessary.
Our priority at PORAC is our members, and we are working to ensure these new AB 1506 provisions do not impede officers’ ability to perform their duties safely and effectively. We know there may still be some confusion as we wait and see how these investigations and the DOJ’s new role will play out. Rest assured that PORAC is highly involved in these important conversations about how this new legislation will impact law enforcement and public safety. As we learn more, we will continue to keep you updated.