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California Tightens Standard For Police In Lethal Force Instances

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Protests do not always lead to change, but this one has.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER: (Chanting) Say his name.

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting) Stephon Clark.

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER: (Chanting) Say his name.

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting) Stephon Clark.

GREENE: That's a crowd in Sacramento, Calif., this past spring chanting the name of an unarmed black man killed by police - this after prosecutors announced the officers would not face charges. Protesters demanded a stronger legal standard for when police can use deadly force, and now they've got one. Here's more from Capital Public Radio's Ben Adler.

BEN ADLER, BYLINE: Backers of the new law call it one of the strongest, if not the strongest, use of force standards in the country. And, they say, it's about time. The bill's author, Democratic Assemblywoman Shirley Weber, pointed to the different kind of justice applied to people of color.

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SHIRLEY WEBER: After 400 years of demonstrating our commitment and our humanity to this nation, we deserve fairness and justice.

(APPLAUSE)

ADLER: Weber has spent the last year fighting to increase California's deadly force standard from reasonable to necessary. It culminated in a compromise with law enforcement that passed the legislature with sweeping majorities. At a signing ceremony yesterday in Sacramento, on the day New York City fired the police officer whose chokehold led to the death of Eric Garner, California Governor Gavin Newsom said California is once again setting an example for the rest of the nation.

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GAVIN NEWSOM: We are doing something today that stretches the boundaries of possibility, that sends a message to people all across this country that they can do more and they could do better to meet this moment in their respective states.

ADLER: Joining Newsom on stage was the brother of Stephon Clark, who was killed by Sacramento police last year in his grandmother's backyard. Officers responding to a vandalism call thought Clark had a gun, but he was actually holding his cellphone. Stevante Clark acknowledged the law won't solve the entire problem but said slow progress is better than no progress.

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STEVANTE CLARK: I call this the Stephon Clark law. You know, I don't think this law would be here and as powerful it - as it is now if it wasn't for my brother.

ADLER: Law enforcement groups agree there's more work to do in officer training and in building trust. Here's Ronald Lawrence, the president of the California Police Chiefs Association.

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RONALD LAWRENCE: As a society, that's what's going to make California and the nation better. You know, people need to trust their police, and the police need to understand our communities. And we need to police our communities to the best ability of the expectation of our cities.

ADLER: Lawrence praised a separate bill creating new officer training standards that's part of the deal, along with money in the state budget to pay for it. But it's clear this law only offers the opportunity to build that trust. Sacramento community activist Berry Accius says even though he fought hard to get this bill signed, he's not as optimistic as others about how it'll be executed.

BERRY ACCIUS: Until there's some convictions and some firings, folks want to see that police are held to the highest regard just like anyone else.

ADLER: Indeed, the signing ceremony was not entirely a kumbaya moment. The bill's backers did not invite law enforcement groups. Maybe emotions are still just a little too raw. For NPR News, I'm Ben Adler in Sacramento.

(SOUNDBITE OF ALFA MIST'S "NAIYTI") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.