Marking a Shift In Police Culture, California Governor Signs ‘Stephon Clark’s Law’ AB 392

Stephon Clark Law BELatina
California Governor Gavin Newsom holds up AB 392 after signing it on Monday, Aug.19, 2019 in Sacramento. At right is Stevante Clark, holding a picture of his brother Stephon Clark with his family, as Clark's grandmother Sequita Clark smiles holding a photo below. Newsom signed the Use-of-Force Bill alongside family of victims of police violence with other politicians including Assemblymember Shirley Weber (D-San Diego) at left who authored the bill. Stephon Clark was shot by Sacramento police in his grandmother's backyard in 2018.

California Governor Gavin Newsom signed into law bill AB 392, legislation that was drafted to reform how police conduct their work when encountering suspects who pose them no threat. The bill is an attempt to clamp down on the deadly use of force against innocent or non-threatening members of the community. 

Whereas deadly force was once permitted when “reasonable” — a description that has done little to limit the slaughter of unarmed black and brown suspects like Stephon Clark — law enforcement must now limit the use of deadly force when it is “necessary in defense of human life.” Standing beside Gov. Newsom was Stevante, the brother of Stephen. “This is the Stephon Clark law,” he declared. “This is about his legacy. This is about legislative change.”

“For 400 years, people of color have often had a different kind of justice than others in this nation,” said Assemblywoman Shirley Weber, the author of the bill. “After 400 years of demonstrating our commitment and humanity to this nation, we deserve fairness and justice.”

The Asembly Bill 392 was passed with bipartisan support after a compromise was struck that would appease legislators hoping to erect more protections for communities at risk of being killed by the officers sworn to protect them, while also winning the support of legislators who feared that any further regulations — or, perhaps, stricter measures of accountability — would prevent law enforcement from performing their work safely and effectively. 

Stephon Clark Law California
Photo Credit AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli

Stephon Clark’s law initially included provisions that would expose officers to criminal liability if charged with using deadly force inappropriately, but that version would not have received support from Republican representatives. “The bill is watered down, everybody knows that,” Stevante told a reporter at the Los Angeles Times. “But at least we are getting something done. At least we are having the conversation now.”

The new legislation, effective in January, will likely leave an interpretation of “necessary” up to judges. It’s unclear if this will reduce the number of people who are unjustifiably killed at the hands of law enforcement or if this will change whether officers will be held criminally liable for killing innocent suspects in cases that are “not necessary.” After all, no one in their right mind would consider it reasonable for officers to have fired 20 shots at Clark, striking him eight times (six times from behind); yet, none of the officers involved faced any charges for mowing down a man in his own grandmother’s backyard. 

Still, Stephon Clark’s law is a victory for the state and for the families who have lost loved ones in police killings. Weber, who is confident that the legislation will change California’s culture of policing and save lives, acknowledged how much has been at stake for the Clark family, as well as for the many other families who joined her at the bill signing. “I have to thank the families who have lost loved ones to police violence,” she said. “They have been the energy and the moral compass for making this possible.”