.Sizing Up California’s New Police Reform Laws

“I’m not in the best frame of mind to talk about policing right now,” says Dr. Ginger Charles when I call. She sounds tired.

We’re scheduled to discuss some of the new police reform laws that went into effect at the start of this year. A number of police reform laws were introduced in 2020, following George Floyd’s murder at the hands of Minneapolis police. Two years later, three California laws aim to hold law enforcement accountable for misconduct, limit police use of violence at protests and create a more comprehensive education for incoming police officers.

But, as is common in discussions about police reform, perspectives on the effectiveness of these laws vary depending on who you are talking to. 

That’s why I reached out to Dr. Charles. If anyone is familiar with the inner workings of police departments and how to change police culture, it’s her. She is a retired police sergeant, served 27 years as a police officer and works with police departments across the country. Now, she is the chair of the Criminal Justice program at Cabrillo College, where she teaches prospective police officers.

“I’m just rather disappointed in where we’re at,” Dr. Charles continues. “There’s so much that needs to change in policing. Sometimes, I just feel like we’re beating a dead horse trying to get some of those changes done.” 

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Dr. Charles thinks these new reform laws are a decent starting point, but she also believes they don’t get at the root of the problem. Take Assembly Bill 89 (AB-89) for instance, which raises the age requirement for police officers from 18 to 21 and requires officers to have higher education degrees by 2023.

“When I served as an officer, I served in an agency that didn’t require any kind of degree and then I served at one that required a four-year degree,” Dr. Charles says. “There are still the same disciplinary problems at both.”

LIMITING POWERS

When former Santa Cruz Police Chief Andy Mills knelt next to Santa Cruz City Councilman and former Mayor Justin Cummings at a protest organized in recognition of Floyd’s murder, Cummings had no idea the significance people would draw from that moment. 

Pictures of Chief Mills taking a knee next to Cummings, who was at the time Santa Cruz’s first Black mayor, began circling the internet.

“That was not planned,” Cummings says. “All of a sudden, as Chief Mills and I were talking, people started taking a knee, like a domino effect. And so we took a knee together.” 

But just an hour and a half away, protests in Oakland were turning violent, with activists and law enforcement coming to a head. So shortly after Mills’ kneeling was covered in news outlets across the state, Oakland issued a call to its neighbors: it needed reinforcements. Responding to what’s known as a Mutual Aid Call, Mills sent Santa Cruz police officers to Oakland.

“We watched as Mills knelt in solidarity, but then he authorized and sent police officers to Oakland,” says community organizer and activist Thairie Ritchie, who has organized multiple protests in support of Black Lives Matter in Santa Cruz County. “At a time when Oakland PD was firing tear gas and violently arresting demonstrators.” 

This is where Assembly Bill 48 (AB-48) comes in. 

AB-48 limits police use of chemical agents, rubber bullets and other less-lethal weapons at protests unless someone’s life is in danger, and requires departments to release reports on how they use these weapons. One way this will help law enforcement, Cummings says, is that it will standardize police departments’ responses during protests.

“When mutual aid is called upon, there can be different rules of engagement for different departments,” says Cummings. “Oakland’s approach to dealing with protests is very different from Santa Cruz’s approach. What this will do moving forward is set baseline expectations.”

Some departments argued that law enforcement should continue to be able to use these less-lethal weapons according to their discretion, says Cummings, who was a representative on the League of California Cities Public Safety Committee. The committee makes recommendations on policies that go to the state legislature.

“I was surprised the bill passed,” says Cummings. “It was very controversial and the body has a lot of current and former law enforcement agents on it.” 

But on the other side, reform activists say this bill doesn’t go far enough, because it still gives police the authority to take violent measures.

“It gives the police officers the power to serve as the overall judge of a scenario,” says Ritchie. “They get to define what’s a life-threatening situation.”

NEW MINIMUMS

Dr. Charles thinks that in order for police departments to change, police culture needs to change. But how do you change the culture of policing within a department? 

“The key is, how are these folks mentored and supervised?” says Dr. Charles. “Until you change the upper echelon, and have them really looking at what they’re doing, it’s really going to be tough to change this field.”

That’s why she thinks AB-89 misses the mark. The bill raises the age requirement for officers to 21, a change that won’t have much of an effect locally—both Santa Cruz County Sheriff Jim Hart and Santa Cruz Interim Police Chief Bernie Escalante say it’s been years, if not decades, since they’ve hired someone under 21.

More importantly at a local level, the bill requires new officers to have a higher education degree and establishes a “modern policing” degree program that mandates courses in psychology and ethnic studies. Despite the strides it might make in educating incoming officers on inequities and social justice issues, Dr. Charles thinks its effectiveness in changing police behavior is limited.

“Let’s say we do this modern policing degree, and we send these wonderful educated young police officers into this culture that hasn’t changed,” says Dr. Charles. “And see them change within mere months, as they try to get along within this culture, and it undoes everything that we have tried to do.”

Ritchie also pointed out that the bill might have unintended consequences when it comes to diverse candidate pools. Studies show that a larger percentage of white Americans obtain higher education degrees compared to minorities. Paired with rising costs of tuition and the burden of student debt, Ritchie wonders if this bill will deter minority communities from pursuing a profession in law enforcement, at a time that he thinks is critical to encourage minorities to join law enforcement.

“The issue of policing is, for me, that a lot of officers often come into communities that they have no knowledge of, and have no sense of identity or connection to,” Ritchie says. “Police departments hiring more people from communities of color is a primary way to solve this issue.”

Meanwhile, law enforcement officials worry that this educational requirement might diminish the overall pool of law enforcement candidates. Santa Cruz County has seen three police chiefs retire or change departments in the past year, and both Hart and Escalante tell GT they are concerned that this bill will strain recruitment efforts during a time when law enforcement agencies across the country are facing a mass exodus.

But Cummings thinks there might not be a direct correlation with education. In fact, four other states already have bachelor’s degree requirements for police officers—Illinois, Nevada, New Jersey and North Dakota—and 18 other states require at least some college. Also, the Bureau of Labor Statistics challenges the narrative that police departments are hemorrhaging police officers: From 2019 to 2020, the number of people working at local police departments and sheriff’s offices decreased by less than 1%.

Hiring concerns aside, Dr. Charles maintains that police officers who are aware of social justice issues and practice less violence exist in departments with leaders who value those practices.

“It’s a good start, but it also kind of gums up the entire situation here,” says Dr. Charles. “Here we have these laws that are being introduced, without some kind of accountability for leaders to look at how they are actually policing.”

Decertifying Police Officers  

When Hart has tried to discipline or fire a law enforcement officer for misconduct, his attempts have been reversed. 

Santa Cruz’s Civil Service Commission, which hears and rules on appeals filed by state, county and local government employees, is very pro labor, Hart says. On a number of occasions, Hart has tried to fire a ‘problem employee,’ only to have the commission veto the move. 

“They’re very hesitant to allow me to either discipline or terminate an employee who’s had a lot of problems,” Hart says. “And so for the state to be able to come in and take care of that I think could have value to a lot of police agencies across the state.”

He is referring to Senate Bill 2 (SB-2), which creates a process for stripping law enforcement officers of their badge if they engage in serious misconduct, including excessive force, racial bias and dishonesty.

Hart says the bill would prevent officers who resign and are fired or disciplined for misconduct from switching departments and continuing to carry a badge and gun, an issue he says he is happy will be resolved. With SB-2 going into effect this year, California is now on par with the 46 other states that have similar legislation that prevents abusive officers from switching jobs.

While Hart supports the bill, dozens of law enforcement groups, including the California Association of Highway Patrolmen and the California Peace Officers Association opposed the legislation. 

The bill requires Gov. Gavin Newsom to appoint a nine-member Peace Officer Standards Accountability Advisory Board by the end of the year. The board will be made up of two law enforcement officers, one civilian oversight attorney and six members of the public who would review misconduct allegations and recommend whether the officers qualify for decertification.

The California Peace Officers Association said that while they support decertification of abusive officers, SB-2 creates an unfair process to do so, by allowing six members of the public without police experience to weigh in on law enforcement issues.

Escalante agrees that there are many situations law enforcement officers face that require split-second decisions—situations that members of the public can only judge from an outsider’s perspective.

“The fear of having to make a split-second decision and being criminally prosecuted for it? That’s a problem,” says Escalante.  

Ritchie says he’s happy that police will be held, to a degree, accountable for misconduct. He thinks accountability is the first step toward establishing more trust in the community—with an emphasis on the ‘first step.’ In order for minority communities in particular to regain trust in law enforcement, police reform laws must continue to be passed at the legislative level, he says.  

“As things started reopening, I think people started losing attention to some of these important policing issues,” says Ritchie. “But we can’t lose momentum, we really need to keep pushing, and keep pushing.”

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