Aiming to reduce police shootings in a state that has more than 100 of them each year, the California legislature passed a bill Monday setting a tougher standard for police to use deadly force, allowing officers to fire their guns only “when necessary in defense of human life.” 

Gov. Gavin Newsom said he intends to sign Assembly Bill 392, likely putting an end to more than a year of emotional debate in the Capitol that began after Sacramento police killed an unarmed black man in his grandparents’ backyard. The heated testimony revealed the anguish of Californians whose relatives have been killed by police, as well as the energy of a national civil rights movement drawing attention to the disproportionate impact of police shootings in communities of color. 

“Race matters, and to suggest otherwise is a blatant denial of the obvious,” said Sen. Holly Mitchell, a Los Angeles Democrat who presented the bill on the Senate floor. 

“It’s obvious to so many that the current ‘reasonable standard’ of using force… does not protect people’s fundamental human rights.”

Civil libertarians celebrated the bill’s sweeping passage in the Senate but expressed concerns that the measure might be weakened by another bill still moving through the Legislature with the support of police. 

Debate over AB 392 also involved recognition of the dangers officers face on the job, as police raised concerns that setting a higher bar for when they can shoot could cause them to hesitate and, perhaps, be shot first. In testifying against the bill earlier this year, a sheriff’s deputy described a harrowing shootout with a suspect who killed her partner, and said, “the thought of having to second-guess my actions in that moment is frightening.” 

Assemblywoman Shirley Weber, the San Diego Democrat who wrote AB 392, said it was never meant to put police in harm’s way.

“We all care about our law enforcement officers. When you start asking people to bring change, it’s almost like there’s an attack on the officers, and yet that was not the case at all,” Weber said. “We were not fighting law enforcement, we were fighting for change.”

Police officers were in the Capitol on Monday as the Senate honored Tara O’Sullivan, a Sacramento police officer who was killed last month while responding to a domestic violence call. The officers left the chamber before senators debated the deadly force bill, but some senators referenced O’Sullivan’s death in saying they were glad it was written in a way that wouldn’t put police at any greater risk.

The bill heading to Newsom’s desk reflects a compromise between civil rights advocates who led the push for a higher standard to justify deadly force, and law enforcement groups that initially lobbied against it.

Major statewide law enforcement groups went neutral after the compromise was announced in May, signaling they don’t love the bill but can live with it. The American Civil Liberties Union and many other civil rights groups maintained passionate support, saying AB 392 will save lives. Activists who staged numerous marches and rallies in favor of the bill watched the Senate vote from the balcony above. 

“The impact of this bill is going to be powerful,” said Cephus Johnson, whose nephew Oscar Grant was unarmed when transit police in Oakland shot him in the back a decade ago. “Change is coming.” 

But some groups — most notably Black Lives Matter — pulled support for the measure, saying the compromise with law enforcement had weakened it too much. 

“I don’t know how we’re ever going to get meaningful police accountability legislation passed when the police associations themselves are the ones that are kind of seen as having to sign off,” said Melina Abdullah, a co-founder of Black Lives Matter Los Angeles.

Even some law enforcement experts said the new standard won’t make much difference in whether prosecutors file charges in cases like that of Stephon Clark, the unarmed man whose death in his grandparents’ backyard inspired the bill. Officers believed he was holding a gun when they fired at him, but it turned out to be a cell phone.

“If we had a Stephon Clark incident and AB 392 was law today, no prosecutor would bring charges against the officers,” said Ed Obayashi, a lawyer, a use-of-force expert and a deputy sheriff in Plumas County.

District attorneys did not weigh in on the bill as it moved through the Legislature, and the California District Attorneys Association has no formal position. But Nancy O’Malley, the district attorney of Alameda County and incoming president of the statewide association, said the bill will require prosecutors to make “a slightly different analysis” than they do now when determining if a shooting is justified.  

“Did the officer use other available resources and techniques if they were reasonably safe and feasible to an objectively reasonable officer? That part of it, I think, will add a component to the evaluation,” O’Malley said.

The biggest change the bill will make, she predicted, will be in how officers are trained to de-escalate and use other tactics before firing a gun.

“I think it’s going to put an emphasis on training for law enforcement,” she said.

That’s the goal of another bill, SB 230, that police officers and chiefs have thrown their weight behind. It would give police more training, teaching them the new deadly force standard as well as lessons on implicit bias and alternatives to firing their guns. Proponents are pitching it as a complement to the bill that changes the legal standard for deadly force.

But the ACLU is against it, saying that some wording in SB 230 could weaken their goal in AB 392.

“Both bills direct officers to de-escalate or use other tactics besides deadly force when it’s feasible to do so. But the definition of ‘feasible’ in this bill is so strict, by requiring no increase in risk to officers — even a reasonable increase — that it makes that requirement in this bill very weak and would undermine the requirement in AB 392,” said ACLU attorney Peter Bibring.

SB 230, by Democratic Sen. Anna Caballero, faces additional votes in the Assembly.

Learn more about California’s attempt to reduce police shootings by subscribing to CALmatters’ podcast, Force of Law.