SACRAMENTO, Calif. - California Attorney General Rob Bonta on Wednesday explained that starting this month, his office is now in charge of deciding whether to charge police in all deadly officer-involved shootings of unarmed civilians, taking that job away from local district attorneys.
Historically, these critical incidents had been primarily handled by local law enforcement and prosecutors.
There is an average of 40 to 50 police shootings in California each year, and Bonta said there will be two teams from his office, comprised of 27 agents, to review these cases in both northern and southern parts of the state.
The teams will not automatically be sent to other in-custody deaths, like restraint deaths, where people like Mario Gonzalez and Angelo Quinto died at the hands of police in Alameda and Antioch, respectively. But Bonta said his office could be called in on a case-by-case basis.
The teams will be immediately deployed to the shooting death scene. The matter will then be reviewed by a team of special state prosecutors.
The final charging decisions will be up to the AG's office, not local district attorneys.
Teams will begin reviewing any case that occurred on July 1 or after; not before. As of Wednesday, there were no cases that qualify for the AG's review. However, Bonta in May announced he would review the shooting death of Sean Monterrosa at the hands of Vallejo police citing the Solano County District Attorney had recused herself from that case.
"I know well what the stakes are for getting this done right, getting it right," Bonta said, noting he was a co-author of the new law, AB 1506. "This is about standing up for all of our communities and ensuring there is trust in the process. One of the most important tasks ahead for public safety and our society is building and maintaining trust between our communities and law enforcement. Impartial, fair investigations and independent reviews of officer-involved shootings are an essential component for achieving that. We must have accountability and we must have transparency. This effort is personal for me. I've heard firsthand the hurt and the pain that so."
How will this change the experience for communities of color?
"You can't have trust without accountability and transparency," Bonta said, adding that the implementation of this law will help increase trust.
Once the prosecutors review the case, the California Department of Justice will make public its determinations regarding a potential criminal prosecution, either through a written report explaining why charges are not appropriate or through the filing of criminal charges.
As part of the law, there are specific items that are considered weapons. Knives, guns and metal knuckles are considered weapons, for example. Absent from the list are cars, bats and poles. A replica firearm, the guidelines state, is not considered a deadly weapon unless they are used in some particular manner likely to produce death or great bodily injury.
"Bottom line, Californians deserve to know that there is a fair and impartial process in place to capably and timely investigate officer-involved shootings," he said.
The shift in responsibility drew mixed reactions from police and use-of-force experts as Bonta released five documents outlining how his office will handle its new role. The law’s primary author, Democratic Assemblyman Kevin McCarty, previously said five other states have variations on independent reviews of deaths caused by police.
"Law enforcement as a whole, they’re not progressive, they don’t like change," said Timothy T. Williams Jr., a Black police tactics expert who spent nearly 30 years with the Los Angeles Police Department. "There’s going to be a lot of folks that don’t like it. But change is what’s needed, and change is going to happen, whether you support it or not."
Williams was happy the investigations are going to the attorney general’s office and that Bonta is taking a progressive approach. The training requirements outlined in the protocols for the state investigators "are awesome," Williams said, and should correct slipshod investigations he has seen at the local level.
But Eugene O’Donnell, a former New York City police officer and professor of police studies at New York’s John Jay College of Criminal Justice, said he thinks the change is the latest step in undermining policing in California.
For officers, "the new No. 1 is ‘I could go to prison for doing my job,’ " he said.
"They’re being officially told, basically, by the Legislature and by the AG, to wait until they’re fired upon," O’Donnell said. "And of course, the major message it sends is the best way to not be in a police shooting is to not engage anybody in the first place."
Brian Marvel, president of the rank-and-file Peace Officers Research Association of California, said he expects some initial "hiccups" but was hopeful Bonta’s office took his organization’s suggestions in developing its new protocols.
If so, "it’s a good step in the right direction," he said.
"The vast majority of officer-involved shootings are justified, and I just think this is another layer of oversight," Marvel said. "I think the AG’s office is going to find what we’re finding on the local level — that officers, they do it right and they don’t use officer-involved shootings unnecessarily."
Police unions in Los Angeles, San Francisco and San Jose said such shootings already go through "a transparent and exhaustive investigative process."
"It is absolutely critical that this new process be grounded in evidence, based on the law, and not swayed by political pressure to ensure a fair process for everyone," they said in a joint statement.
This story was reported from Oakland, Calif. KTVU's Evan Sernoffskky and the Associated Press' Don Thompson contributed to this report.