Society Needs to Respect the Enforcement of the
Rule of Law
Editor’s note: This op-ed appeared in The Sacramento Bee on March 17.
The shooting of Stephon Clark has now been reviewed by two independent agencies, the Sacramento County District Attorney’s Office and the California Department of Justice. Both agencies spent nearly a year combing through all the evidence, including video recordings, photographs, witness interviews, forensic evidence, coroner’s reports and countless other evidence.
Both agencies independently concluded that the officers’ actions were not criminal and were consistent with the law. These officers were called on by concerned citizens who needed them to address the criminal actions of Clark. Both the district attorney and the attorney general proved that Clark was involved in criminal acts.
When officers contacted Clark, he did not comply. Instead of taking advantage of an open avenue of escape, he chose to turn on the officers, who both said he took a shooting stance and aggressively advanced on them. The officers clearly believed Clark was in possession of a gun and posed a deadly threat. The officers had no choice but to use force to protect themselves and the community they serve.
While Clark’s death is a tragedy, it is a tragedy of his own making. His actions necessitated the officers’ response. As a society, we expect and demand officers to intercede when criminal activity is in progress. Law enforcement officers don’t pick and choose which laws to enforce and how to enforce those laws. They are trained to protect people, property and themselves. When suspects are not compliant with law enforcement, the consequences are predictable.
Now, with the investigations concluded and the officers’ actions confirmed to be clearly in accordance to the law, some are demanding the law be changed. Others are second-guessing the officers’ split-second actions in a dangerous situation. Some are wondering if more training could ensure that no one is ever hurt during crimes or arrests. These questions all ignore half of the equation. They fail to consider the actions of the involved criminals, who are the ones most capable of preventing the use of force.
Officers use force in response to resistance and threats. Every day, officers encounter crimes in progress. Most of these encounters end without the use of any force because most alleged suspects comply with law enforcement. However, sometimes force is needed to overcome resistance, and that force is proportionate to the perceived resistance and threat. To prevent force being used to overcome resistance, a criminal who is subject to arrest need only comply.
The U.S. Supreme Court has established the standard to judge officers and that standard accounts for the fact that we place our officers in dangerous situations where we expect them to make split-second, life-and-death decisions with limited information. Due to this expectation, we must judge law enforcement personnel based only on the information they knew at the time.
Now, in a gross overreaction, Assembly Bill 392 would allow officers to be charged with murder if, in the calm of the months after an incident, anyone can think of anything the officers could have done differently to have avoided deadly use of force, even mandating that officers retreat from criminals who resist. This is an unobtainable standard. The endless lines of “what ifs” will always exist. In the fractions of seconds that officers have to make these decisions, it is impossible to evaluate all the “what ifs.”
Is this really what our community expects? Do we want officers to retreat from dangerous situations, fail to protect our community and leave the law-abiding public to fend for themselves as criminals are allowed to engage in their criminal behavior unchecked by a neutered police force?
If we truly want to reduce the number of police encounters that end in tragedy, then we must solve the underlying problems. We should improve training and policies for officers. We must provide resources for those in society who are struggling with mental health issues, chemical dependencies, lack of education, homelessness and poverty. Most importantly, we must teach our youth and others that compliance with laws and law enforcement minimizes violence and prevents the use of force by officers.
Police departments across the state, including the Sacramento Police Department, are already working on implementing changes. As a result, deadly encounters in California were down 34% in 2018. The state DOJ has outlined a framework for these changes and SB 230 would mandate many of the attorney general’s recommendations throughout the state.
Legislators have a clear choice this legislative cycle: They can either vote for a comprehensive solution to improve public safety and reduce future tragedies, or they can vote to send officers to prison and cripple law enforcement’s ability to protect and serve.