California Improves Police Use of Force Law

Moving from “Reasonable” to “Necessary”

[Ed. Note: This guest blog is from John Mutz, retired LAPD captain and recent candidate for sheriff in Sonoma County, California. John and I have become friends as we came to understand our involvement in Dr. W. Edwards Deming’s work in quality management and its relationship to improving police. Thanks, John for your input on California’s new law limiting police uses of deadly force. More on John at the end of his blog.]

The Latest in the Regulation of Police Use of Deadly Force in California

By John Mutz, Captain, Los Angeles Police Department, Retired.

It seems the terrain is changing in California in regard to the use of deadly force by police. It appears the law enforcement lobby is making concessions to the long-held standard which originated in the 1989 US Supreme Court in Graham v. Connor.

Courageous California State Assembly members, led by Dr Shirley Weber of San Diego, have authored legislation which will help restore trust in our state’s law enforcers. In the past, many of those attempts to bring change failed. Now Weber’s bill passed the legislature and was signed by the Governor Newsom changing the use of force standard from “reasonable” to “necessary. The bill also allocated $35 million for additional police training and legislative support. The new law will take effect this coming January.

 Weber’s legislation was initially opposed by law enforcement leaders and union members. While the legislation required compromises, it still is a positive step toward reducing police use of deadly force in California as it upgrades the Graham standard of “objective reasonableness.”

The law also creates additional transparency regarding police personnel records which will now yield new information concerning police behaviors previously deemed confidential.

Weber shared her experience in meeting families who have lost a loved one to police use of deadly force and how that impact it caused her propose legislation and bring about change. As a police leader, I can identify with her experience of meeting with families who had a loved one shot and killed by police.  It moved me to support changes the law surrounding how my officers where trained regarding when to use deadly force.

Laurel Rosenthal of CalMatters has been following this legislation and reporting on it.  According to her, during last year 146 people died by police use of deadly force in California and this year the number is currently at 176.  Blacks and Latinos making up a disproportionate number of those deaths. This suggests there is may have been another standard operating when it involved people of color.

What should we expect from this legislation? According to Governor Newsom, it is to see a significant reduction in citizen deaths at the hands of police.

I believe that responsible and informed police leadership also plays an important role here. While law enforcement agencies have lacked the money, the mindset and new ways of reducing questionable uses of deadly force by their officers there has, over the years, been weak local and national pressure from citizens to make these necessary changes.  In some instances, there has been a clear and deep-rooted culture of violence by a minority of law enforcement officers that has prevented an honest and open look at what contributes to what appears to be unnecessary uses of force by police in California and across our country.

The word “necessity” when police consider using deadly force is an important one.  But we might consider more as we struggle with this important national problem (for among the free nations in the world, our police use deadly force five to ten times more than any other).  We might consider implementing the standard for police use of force in the European Union, was it absolutely necessary?”* The answer to this question goes to the heart of the matter: the sanctity of human life.

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  • The primary Articles of the European Convention on Human Rights and Policing which govern the use of force by police are Articles 2 and 3. Article 2 restricts the use of lethal or potentially lethal force to a very limited set of circumstances (in effect, where such use is absolutely necessary for the protection of life).
  • More about John Mutz:

John served 25 years with Los Angeles Police Department, 10 of those years as a Station Commander.

He reviewed hundreds of cases of use of deadly force and has devoted his time to advocating for a new conversation about how to reduce these fatal actions. He was significantly moved by his experience of meeting families who have lost loved ones to police uses of deadly force as well as observing the failure of law enforcement leadership. He believes police must follow the practices in the aviation industry and in the practice of medicine that call for independent and objective investigations when mistakes result in the loss of life.

Following his retirement from the Los Angeles Police Department, he worked for Right Management in its Talent Management Division in Newport Beach and San Francisco working with senior level leaders around executive presence.

He has continued to be a voice for change in how police build trust both within its ranks and with the community it serves.