California governor signs host of police reforms including decertification, duty to intervene

Standing among lawmakers and families whose sons died at the hands of police, Gov.  Gavin Newsom signed a host of reform bills that span from decertifying police officers from ever getting another job to opening up records when there has been sustained findings of racism.  Other new laws open up records, put stricter laws into place when tear gas can be used and forbids the use of traditional face-down holds that cause "positional asphyxia." 

"This is hope, that change is possible," said Robert Collins, the stepfather of Angelo Quinto, who died last December after Antioch police put a knee on the young Navy veteran's neck during a mental health crisis. "And that means the loss that we had was not in vain, if we can prevent other people from suffering the same fate."

After the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, a host of community members and politicians around the country, including California, aimed to make police departments more transparent and accountable, as well as put limits on police power. 

Many of those efforts died last legislative season, but were revived and signed into law on Thursday. Newsom said he hoped that honoring the families' pain would be reflected in this package of bills. So did a host of legislators standing by his side. 

"It is always is always gratifying to be able to put into into law. Let me say that again to see your ideas put into law to help Californians become more safe," said Assemblyman Reggie Jones Sawyer (D-Los Angeles). 

State Attorney General Rob Bonta, who co-authored some of the bills, added: "We are showing that you can build trust with the public and enhance safety of our community and our officers at the same time that they are not mutually exclusive, that in fact they are reinforcing that by building trust." 

MORE: The dilemma of the good cop: Calling out wrongdoing can end an officer’s career

The hallmark of the the package of bills is the Kenneth Ross Jr. Act, or SB 2, which permanently strips away the badges of officers found to have committed serious misconduct and ending what author Democratic Sen. Steven Bradford called the "wash, rinse and repeat cycle" of officers moving from department to department even if they have a questionable history. The bill was signed in the Rawley Gym in Gardena, not far from where Ross was killed. 

"We're here to recognize him," Bradford said. "It was three years ago a young man who was simply running across the park having some issues. And instead of sending a crisis team, the 25-year-old was shot in the back and killed in broad daylight by an officer who really had no business being here in the city of Gardena." 

Forty six states already have this law, which prevents officers from getting hired anywhere else, much like if a doctor loses is medical license. 

Now, state regulators from the Commission on Peace Officer Standards and Training can revoke the licenses of officers who commit "serious misconduct," including using excessive force, committing sexual assault, displaying bias and participating in a law enforcement gang.

A civilian-controlled advisory board will review the findings and make a recommendation about whether to decertify an officer. A decision to a strip officers of their badges would need to be adopted by two-thirds of the commission and approved by an administrative law judge. The officer could potentially be suspended instead.

MORE: Oakland police chief apologizes; issues 33 disciplinary actions for using tear gas against protesters

Other bills that Newsom sign include: 

  • The PEACE Act, or AB 89, authored by Reggie Jones Sawyer (D-Los Angeles), which increases the minimum age of police officers from 18 to 21 and creates a required curriculum in the community college system.
  • AB 490, authored by Assemblyman Mike Gipson, (D-Carson), forbids law enforcement from using carotid restraints or choke holds or employ maneuvers that will increase a substantial risk of positional asphyxia. He stood by the family of Angelo Quinto of Antioch, who died during a mental health crisis after officers pressed their knees on his neck Dec. 23, 2020. His family came to the news conference, speaking out, and crying quietly on the sidelines. Newsom hugged Quinto's mother, Sandra Quinto Collins, who burst into tears as the legislation was being signed.
  • The Duty to Intervene Act, or AB 26, authored by Assemblyman Chris Holden (D-Pasadena) otherwise known as the "George Floyd Bill." This requires use of de-escalation techniques, stopping excessive use of force when an officer is in a position to do so and documenting and reporting the incident in real time to dispatchers. Failing to intervene  would also mean that that officer would be disciplined in the same manner as the officer who committed the wrongdoing.
  • SB 16, authored by Sen. Nancy Skinner (D-Berkeley) would expand her landmark police transparency bill by making pubic records on officers who have engaged in biased or discriminatory behavior, conducted unlawful arrests or searches, or used force that is excessive or unreasonable. For example, records in the Oakland Police Department's racist and misogynist Instagram scandal must now be made public by January 2023. SB 16 also opens access to records on officers who failed to intervene when another officer used unreasonable or excessive force and ensures that officers with a history of misconduct can’t just quit their jobs, keep their records secret, and move on to continue bad behavior in another jurisdiction.
  • AB48, by Assembly Member Lorena Gonzalez, (D-San Diego) prevents police officers from firing rubber bullets or tear gas at a protest unless it is a life-threatening situation. Police across the country used tear gas on George Floyd protesters last summer, causing many injuries.
  • AB481, authored by Assembly Member David Chiu, D-San Francisco, requires law enforcement agencies to seek approval from local governing bodies when they buy surplus military equipment. Oakland and Berkeley already have such rules.

Law enforcement groups said they supported the general concept of weeding out bad officers, but many had issues with the specifics of the legal language, the logistics of how to carry out these laws and the makeup of power structures to mete out officer discipline. 

For example, Brian Marvel, president of the Peace Officers Research Association of California, said he believes the advisory board vested with the ability to decertify will likely be biased against police, the law contains "unclear, subjective and vague" definitions of "serious misconduct" and does not address the Peace Officer’s Bill of Rights – the rulebook by which administrative investigations of peace officers must be conducted in California.

Still, Marvel said that he generally agreed with the idea of decertifying problem police officers 

"We cannot allow officers who demonstrate gross misconduct to continue to be members of the law enforcement profession; their licenses must be revoked," he said in a statement. 

In terms of the public transparency bill, police and cities argued it would create too much of an administrative burden to go through records and release them to to the public. Police groups had also opposed the tear gas measure, arguing the less-than-lethal tools are needed to prevent violence and are often better than the alternatives.

Bradford said that his office worked with police, including one of his childhood friends who worked for the Los Angeles police for 35 years, to craft some of the legislation because they wanted to hear law enforcement's point of view.

"And this guy was constantly in my ear telling me what we should and should not do, what is appropriate, what is not appropriate," Bradford said. 

However, Bradford added: "If we had a bill that law enforcement liked one hundred percent, then we didn't have a bill. look, we're not promoting perfect here, but we are promoting progress."

This story was reported from Oakland, Calif.