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Alexandria, Louisiana, Police Department homepage, via Radley Balko on Twitter

Two Democratic members of Congress have introduced a bill aimed at dialing back the overall shootiness of America's police. Fatal shootings by cops have increased every year since 2016, although that is, of course, all Barack Obama's fault. The PEACE Act, by Reps. Ro Khanna (D-California) and Lacy Clay (D-Missouri), would require all federal law enforcement officers to use deadly force only as a last resort, and only "after exhausting reasonable alternatives to the use of such force." The bill would use the leverage of federal law-enforcement funding to nudge state and local governments to adopt similar use-of-force policies.

To underline the need for changes in policing, Khanna and Clay unveiled the bill last Friday, on the five-year anniversary of the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. And to suggest just how much attitudes among law enforcement need changing, that anniversary was followed Monday by Attorney General Bill Barr's speech in which he said police are literally "fighting ... a war" against the very worst evildoers, every day. The bill clearly won't go anywhere while Fascism and Order Republicans control the White House and Senate, but after 2020, that could change.


Rep. Khanna was moved to push for nationwide use of force reform by any number of police abuses, but the one he says really inspired the bill was the 2018 Sacramento police shooting of Stephon Clark, who was blown away in his grandmother's back yard for holding a cell phone while black. In an interview with Rolling Stone's Jamil Smith, Khanna explained,

"It seemed just like another case of a young man's life being taken without any rationale [...] And so after Stephon Clark, I had a conversation over breakfast with Reverend [Al] Sharpton. He said, 'Look, if you really want to do something, this is what's consequential: Change the actual standard. The ghost of Rehnquist still haunts us. Go propose federal legislation to change the standard.'"

What Sharpton was referring to was the varying measure of determining what is and what isn't excessive force by law enforcement. The "ghost" he spoke of is the unanimous 1989 Graham v. Connor decision under then-Chief Justice William Rehnquist. That ruling ostensibly established an "objectively reasonable" standard for excessive use-of-force claims under the Fourth Amendment, which protects people against unreasonable searches and seizures. The ruling has been more elastic in practice, often allowing officers to escape legal and even departmental sanction for killings and heinous abuses.

There has to be a better standard than "any cop who says they 'fear for their life' can pump someone full of lead," so Khanna and Clay set out to craft legislation that would provide a national standard for use of lethal force that would emphasize de-escalation of conflict and save lives of cops and members of the public they allegedly serve.

The bill is modeled on a California bill, the "Act to Save Lives," which passed in July and is awaiting Gov. Gavin Newsom's signature. The Khanna-Clay legislation was developed with input from "civil rights organizations such as Sharpton's National Action Network, the ACLU, NAACP, and the NAACP Legal Defense Fund," which is probably enough to give Tucker Carlson a coronary. You mean criminals and people the cops are certain are criminals (like all black people everywhere) have rights? When did THAT happen?

Khanna said the requirement to just slow down a tiny bit and assess the situation better, and to try nonlethal tactics first, probably would have kept Tamir Rice alive.

The police officers in that case, when they were called, they went two feet away from the boy and [initiated] a confrontation. There would be totally different standards required under force being a last resort and force being necessary.

Khanna seems to have misspoken: The police officers who shot the 12-year-old boy holding an Airsoft gun were about 10 feet away; they did, however shoot and kill him within two seconds. Khanna and Clay both reject the narrative that cops would be in greater danger if they back off from current levels of deadly force.

Khanna points to Seattle. Five years after the Obama administration mandated the Seattle Police Department change its use-of-force standard to one of "necessity" in 2012, a federal monitor concluded that the department had made a dramatic turnaround — not merely decreasing its net incidents by 60 percent, but finding that it actually made life on the beat safer for cops. The report showed that "decreased use of force has not placed officers at any higher risk or made officers less able or willing to use force to defend themselves from threats or harm."

For the moment, of course, we have a president who actively encourages police brutality and an attorney general calling for absolutely zero tolerance of resistance to police (and letting police decide what counts as "resisting," like not wanting to be shot). Might be nice to try something less killy and shooty!

If such policies are adopted, there's always the question of how they might crash up against the worst, most aggressive attitudes of cops and police unions, who tend to treat any suggestion that they be just a little more careful out there as evidence that criminal-coddling liberals want cops to die. The "Law Enforcement Today" blog reacted to the proposal by just plain lying, insisting in a headline that if the law passed, cops "will have to ask suspects not to kill them before shooting." Which of course isn't in the bill, but is nice scary propaganda. Why, there's not even a requirement that police even know the words to "Kumbaya."

The evidence from Seattle is at least a hopeful data point; if cops can be convinced that less force makes them safer, that would help. A national law enforcement think tank in 2015 also said de-escalation makes everyone safer, and then there's the not incidental detail that communities are more likely to help cops when citizens don't view them as an occupying army. "Chain of command" is also a real thing: If leadership is serious about change, then change will happen, even if there's grumbling. But the best hope may involve a long-term change in policing culture: If law enforcement is made less brutal, then people other than brutes will be attracted to the job.

[Rolling Stone / St Louis Post-Dispatch / PEACE Act / Photo: Radley Balko on Twitter]

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Doktor Zoom

Doktor Zoom's real name is Marty Kelley, and he lives in the wilds of Boise, Idaho. He is not a medical doctor, but does have a real PhD in Rhetoric. You should definitely donate some money to this little mommyblog where he has finally found acceptance and cat pictures. He is on maternity leave until 2033. Here is his Twitter, also. His quest to avoid prolixity is not going so great.

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