Deadly shootings: California’s attempt to monitor its police is lagging behind

They were shot in long standoffs or in a matter of seconds. They were shot if they stumbled towards an officer, hid behind a wall, or drew a fake gun. They were shot during health checks, murder investigations and traffic stops.

In the past 16 months, the California Department of Justice has opened 25 investigations into law enforcement officials who shot and killed an unarmed person. That scrutiny was part of a new law that went into effect on July 1, 2021 — one of California’s responses to the emotional and political upheaval of the 2020 police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. Previous investigations into fatal police shootings in California were conducted at the local level; Officials were rarely charged.

As of Nov. 10, the Justice Department has resolved just one of the state’s 25 open cases.

CalMatters noted that the department was struggling to meet the goals set by the new law — including the attorney general’s pledge to complete the investigation in a year. Internal emails indicate that Justice Department staff were worried the new workload would overwhelm them. Department officials have also complained that the Legislature cut in half its original $26 million budget request to cover these investigations.

Meanwhile, some of the officers in at least two shootings have been acquitted by their local police review boards.

Cases picked up by the Justice Department range from a man shot dead while fleeing a traffic stop to a young girl who was killed in a department store dressing room when a bullet missed its target. Some were killed after repeatedly attacking officers or threatening them with replica firearms. One man was holding a broomstick, another had his hands in his pockets. Some had nothing at all.

CalMatters is launching a review of these deadly encounters with descriptions of the shootings and case status. Where available, the project will release relevant records and forensic reports, follow court proceedings related to the shootings, and update the Justice Department’s decisions.

Attorney General Rob Bonta has vowed the new law will provide for “impartial, fair investigations” and independent reviews of shootings involving officers. The department will decide, among other things, whether to face criminal charges against the officers.

On November 3, the Justice Department announced the resolution of his first case. This investigation was launched on July 15, 2021, when a 48-year-old man was shot and killed in Hollywood brandishing a pistol-handled lighter. The department determined that it had insufficient evidence to file criminal charges against the two Los Angeles police officers involved in the shooting. None of the officials agreed to be questioned by the Justice Department, the state report showed.

“Gosh, why?” one of the officers asked, hearing the body camera audio shortly after he shot the man.

Bonta acknowledged that the investigations took longer than expected and that the goal “was always to get it done within a year, a year or less.”

The first investigation – which lasted more than 15 months – will likely be the department’s longest, he said, and that future cases should be resolved more quickly.

Since the Legislature has cut its funding request in half, Bonta said, the state must wait for local authorities to report their own fatal encounters — potentially sacrificing some of the department’s perceived independence in the eyes of the public.

Bonta said the budget cut also prevented the purchase of a mobile forensic lab; reduced the nationwide Shooting Division investigative teams from three to two; and in at least one case, this resulted in a shortage of state agents to gather evidence and search a busy scene on Hollywood Boulevard.

“We have the funding that we got and we’re going to make it work,” the attorney general said. “We have no choice. We have to find a way.

“Are we going to do it as fast as we want? no Are we going to do it as well as we could if we had full funding? We always find a way.”

“We have the funding that we got and we will make it work. We have no choice. We have to find a way.”

CALIFORNIA ATTORNEY ROB BONTA

Sacramento Democratic Assembly member Kevin McCarty, who sponsored the bill, has argued that the department has adequate resources to do the job.

“The idea was that they get through the first year and then this year we’re going to have a discussion about what adequate staffing looks like,” McCarty said. “There will certainly be a conversation in the coming financial year.”

Rules governing a police officer’s right to use deadly force were changed in 2019. Previously, an officer could have the authority to shoot someone if it was deemed “appropriate”. The law amended that standard to state that shootings are “permitted only when necessary in defense of human life.”

Since 2016, state law enforcement agencies have shot dead an average of 140 people a year. Of those shootings, about 40 were not armed with guns at the time of their deaths.

The summer of 2020 protests targeted prosecutors in Los Angeles and Alameda counties, who have never charged a police officer who killed an unarmed person. This tension helped produce the new law, which added a layer of accountability at the state level. But the Attorney General’s selection of cases was not without controversy.

As of November 1, the department had 56 cases referred by local law enforcement and conducted 40 on-site investigations. In a Sept. 7 letter to Bonta, Sonoma County District Attorney Jill Ravitch criticized the state for denying a possible investigation — the sheriff’s office finding that a deputy had shot and killed a man with gardening tools.

McCarty said he wants to remove the Justice Department’s discretionary powers by introducing new legislation in January that would force the state to review all police-related deaths among civilians, not just deaths from shootings. The state’s case count would also be expanded to include people who were armed when they were killed by police, McCarty said.

“Any death by law enforcement would require a thorough, independent and transparent investigation,” he said.

“The idea was that they get through the first year and then this year we discuss what adequate staffing looks like.”

CONFERENCE MEMBER KEVIN MCCARTY OF SACRAMENTO

Similarities emerge among the 25 cases accepted for state review, CalMatters noted. In at least four cases, those shot were carrying airsoft pistols or rifles. Used in a sport also called airsoft, these realistic-looking replica guns fire low-velocity plastic projectiles and are not considered lethal weapons by the Department of Justice. In contrast, BB guns and other types of pellet guns are on the lethal weapons list.

Documents and body-cam footage show that officers sometimes warned or offered psychological help to those about to shoot them.

“Don’t do that,” a Riverside County sheriff’s deputy said repeatedly to a suspect.

“We don’t want to hurt you,” a San Francisco police officer said to a man holding a knife next to an unarmed man under a bridge. Both were killed by the police.

In some cases, officers fired within seconds of arriving at the scene. Sometimes her colleagues can be heard on body camera footage telling her to slow down, stop, wait.

Some families don’t wait for the Justice Department to release its findings. You have filed a lawsuit.

CalMatters is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media company that explains California politics and politics.

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