California bill aims to decertify police for serious misconduct
California is one of only four states in the country without such power
By Robert Lewis/CalMatters
–On a Wednesday afternoon in April 2018, Gardena police officers got a “triple beeper” over their radios — three high-pitched squawks signaling an emergency. As many as 20 shots reportedly had been fired near a local park.
“That kind of gets you a little adrenaline squirt going,” Gardena Police Officer Michael Robbins would later tell investigators.
In minutes, a 25-year-old Black man, Kenneth Ross Jr., was dead — shot twice and killed by Officer Robbins as he ran past Rowley Park. Police said a gun was found in the dead man’s shorts pocket, and Robbins would later be cleared by local authorities of any wrongdoing.
But the case was far from over.
What happened on April 11, 2018 — which led to immediate cries for police accountability and demonstrations — is now a centerpiece of a bill that is arguably California’s biggest criminal justice proposal this legislative session.
The bill would allow California to decertify police officers for misconduct — effectively stripping them of a license to work in law enforcement and kicking them out of the profession. California is one of only four states in the country without such power. As a result, a number of high-profile cases have been reported over the years where an officer involved in a questionable shooting was allowed to remain on the streets, only to kill again. Officers also have been fired for wrongdoing in one department, then quietly moved on to another agency.
“California is able to revoke the certification or license of bad doctors, bad lawyers, even bad barbers and cosmetologists — you can even recall an elected official — but is unable to decertify police officers who have broken the law and violated public trust,” state Sen. Steven Bradford said at a committee hearing earlier this year. Bradford, a Gardena Democrat who chairs the public safety committee and lives near where the shooting took place, introduced the bill along with Senate President Pro Tem Toni Atkins.
In the Gardena shooting, local law enforcement — as it typically does in such cases — investigated the shooting. The district attorney’s office cleared Robbins of wrongdoing because it said the officer believed the man running away from him was armed and might reasonably have feared for his life.
But criminal justice reform advocates say for too long police accountability has been solely in the hands of local agencies — police policing themselves. They question if the man Robbins shot in the back was truly a threat running away and point out it was the officer’s fourth shooting, suggesting he was too quick to use deadly force.
Bradford’s bill is the latest effort to break through the wall of legal protections built up over the years that critics say shield California law enforcement officers from accountability. CalMatters was only able to obtain internal police reports and videos regarding the Gardena shooting because a 2018 law for the first time opened certain law enforcement records, including files pertaining to use of deadly force and some misconduct. Another law that went into effect this year requires the state attorney general’s office to handle investigations regarding police killings of unarmed civilians.
“This nation has cried out — especially in Black and brown communities — for change,” Bradford told CalMatters, ticking off a list of high-profile police killings and use of force incidents from Stephon Clark in Sacramento to Oscar Grant in Oakland to Rodney King in Los Angeles. “It’s definitely overdue.”
But there’s still work to be done, he added.
“It’s one thing to pass legislation. It’s another to change the mindset and internal training and operations of law enforcement,” Bradford said.
And his bill is far from certain, as police associations and chiefs from around the state have signaled their opposition.
“No one wants to see bad officers removed from law enforcement more than good officers do,” said Brian Marvel, president of the Peace Officers Research Association of California, in a statement.
“When an officer acts in a way that is grossly inconsistent with the missions and goals of our profession, it tarnishes the badge and the great work being done day in and day out by officers keeping our families and communities safe.”
But he added that the bill as written creates a “biased and unclear process for revoking an officer’s license.”
The bill would create a new division within the state’s Commission on Peace Officer Standards and Training to investigate or review possible misconduct. A nine-member advisory board would consider the evidence and recommend whether to strip an officer of certification. The majority of that board would be civilians without policing experience, including four members who would be experts on “police accountability” and two who either personally suffered from an officer’s use of force or lost a loved one to such an incident. The commission would have final say on decertification, but language in the bill suggests they’d be expected to adopt the advisory board’s recommendations when reasonably supported by evidence.
As for what constitutes wrongdoing that could cost an officer their career, it’s unclear. The bill includes categories such as sexual assault and dishonesty but would leave it to the commission to develop a full definition of “serious misconduct” that also includes broader areas such as “abuse of power” and “physical abuse.”