In the first 95 days of 2019, three civilians were fatally shot by police in Redding.
For a small town like ours, three police shootings of civilians in a little more than three months seemed a tad much to me, and judging from news articles, to others, too. Looking for comparisons, I found “The Washington Post’s” “Fatal Force” database, which has documented police shootings of civilians since January 2015.
As of April 2, the site records 31 citizens that have been killed in California so far this calendar year, including, as previously mentioned, three killed in Redding.
Based on these statistics I did some simple math. While Redding makes up only .002% of California’s population, as of April 2, we had incurred almost 10% of this year’s fatal police shootings in California.
This should make us take notice. Not least of all because Donnell Lang, killed by police in Redding on April 2, had committed no crime before being approached by police. Instead Lang, according to a news release from the Shasta County Sheriff’s office, was detained and placed in a hold due to the account of third parties who said that he was behaving erratically, watching children and may have had a gun. Important note: none of these actions are necessarily illegal, even had they all been shown to be true. The police have not found a gun despite an extensive search, but they believed that he had one at the time he was shot.
Despite our inclinations, a knee-jerk reaction either in defense of or opposition to the RPD’s actions in this case is not warranted. Use of force by the police is a complex issue with direct bearing on the safety of both officers and civilians. So when is the use of deadly force by the police justified?
I was curious about this question last year, too, when I attend the Redding Police Department’s “Force Option Simulation”, designed to educate the public about the moment-by-moment stresses officers face in the course of their work. The training informs citizens about case law as well as allowing them to participate in a simulation of the high-tension situations police officers may regularly experience. I participated as a member of the Shasta County Grand Jury.
As thoroughly explained by this training, and well documented elsewhere, legal protection of police who use lethal force is based on particular case laws including:*
- Tennessee vs. Garner (1985) which generally states that an officer may not use deadly force to prevent the escape of a fleeing suspect unless the officer has probable cause to believe that the suspect poses a significant threat of death or serious injury to the officer or others.
- Graham vs Connor (1989) which can be paraphrased to say that the reasonableness of police use of force must be judged by whether it would be considered reasonable by another police officer in that particular time, place and with those particular circumstances.
*Additionally relevant case law in Lang’s shooting:
- Terry vs Ohio (1968) states that an officer may stop and frisk a civilian based on reasonable suspicion of a crime or reasonable suspicion of being armed and dangerous, even if no probable cause for arrest yet exists.
Astoundingly, it’s been more than a century since California updated its laws related to use of lethal force by a police officer. The existing California law was written in 1872 and states that lethal force may be used whenever an officer has a “reasonable” belief they they or others may be harmed.
But things are changing in California, in part related to the high profile police shooting of unarmed Stephon Clarke in Sacramento last year; a shooting, interestingly, not dissimilar from Lang’s. (Both were thought to have been armed at the time of their shootings and were later found to be unarmed after their deaths.) Sacramento’s District Attorney Anne Marie Schubert did not charge the police officers who killed Stephon Clarke, citing that their use of force was “reasonable” given the circumstances. She stated: “We must recognize that they are often forced to make split second decisions. We must also recognize that they are under tense, uncertain and rapidly evolving circumstances.”
Now a new bill, Assembly Bill 392, which just passed California Assembly’s Committee on Public Safety, would create a higher standard for police by allowing prosecutors to consider whether a police officer’s actions leading up to the lethal use of force contributed to the danger experienced by the officer. It also states that officers can only use deadly force on a fleeing suspect if they believe it’s necessary (rather than than simply reasonable) to prevent death or serious bodily injury. Under AB 392, if either of these standards are not met by the police officer who shot the civilian, charges may be filed against the officer. It’s important to note that AB 392 has far to go before becoming state law and an alternative bill has been presented, Senate Bill 230, which would update existing use of force law in a much less significant way by requiring police departments in California to create policies on use-of-force and to provide training related to those policies.
When I called the Redding Police Department asking questions about the most recent civilian shooting, they directed me to the Sheriff’s office which is investigating the shooting. The Sheriff’s office never returned my call. But due to State Bill 1421, recently passed in California, the public’s access to lethal or serious use of force by police will become more accessible. You can request information by submitting a Public Records Request to the agency. Documents related to open investigations may be inaccessible at the discretion of the agency, for up to 18 months.
LA, Stockton and San Francisco have all seriously revised their use of force policies and training since March of last year. And a California Department of Justice report on use of force and related training practices and policies in Sacramento issued hundreds of recommendations, many of which have been implemented by the Sacramento Police department.
At a time when the Redding Police Department is focusing on “quality of life” crimes, it’s important to remember that Lang lost all quality of life on April 2, 2019, after committing no crime other than failing to obey police directions. I certainly honor and am grateful for the often heroic and sacrificial work of the Redding Police, but four civilian shootings in three months begs the question: Could it be time for changes to use of force policy, training, or practice by the RPD? Or is something else to blame for three civilian deaths in three months?
More to come in future columns.