San Francisco Chronicle - (Sunday)
California enabled police culture that caused Floyd’s death
Despite the guilty verdicts against Derek Chauvin last week for the murder of George Floyd, the families of those whose loved ones have been unjustly killed by law enforcement are still wrestling with the knowledge that the conditions leading up to Floyd’s killing have not been dealt with.
Floyd’s murder was abetted by a national law enforcement culture that lets rogue officers like Chauvin believe they can violate a person’s civil rights without consequence. And despite its liberal reputation, California, the country’s most populous and powerful state, is guilty of helping to create and enable that culture. California’s state courts have consistently rendered decisions that allow rogue officers to kill with impunity, and its lawmakers have stood by as officers trampled over the state’s toothless civil rights protections.
When California Highway Patrol Sgt. Richard Henderson unloaded his firearm into 23yearold Erik Salgado’s vehicle in Oakland last summer, it wasn’t the first time Henderson had killed an unarmed person. Four years earlier, he shot 19yearold Pedro Villanueva to death in Orange County as Villanueva rode home from a local sideshow with some friends.
Current California civil rights law offers Salgado and Villanueva’s families little hope of seeing justice. The Tom Bane Civil Rights Act of 1987 clearly forbids the interference of any person’s civil rights “whether or not acting under color of law ... by threat, intimidation, or coercion.” However, court rulings over the years have spawned judicially created loopholes in the law that shield police from being held accountable.
For example, a 2017 California ruling forces the victims of police brutality to prove that the offending officer acted with a “specific intent” to violate their rights — a claim that is nearly impossible to prove without an outright admission of guilt. This is precisely what happened in the Villanueva case: the judge dismissed the Bane Act claim against the officer, holding that he did not “intend” to kill the teenager. To win its case, Villanueva’s family had to prove that Henderson “intended not only the force,” but its “unreasonableness” as well.
The fact that Henderson fired his gun 12 times, striking the teenager in the head, neck and torso, was insufficient. The fact that Henderson aimed and shot without giving Villanueva time to respond to his orders was not sufficient either, even though witnesses testified that they believed Henderson was a carjacker, not a police officer.
This is clearly an unreasonable standard that gives victims of police brutality in California little hope of finding justice.
We don’t have to accept this status quo. Senate Bill 2, a California bill authored by state Sen. Steven Bradford, DGardena (Los Angeles County) and state Senate President Pro Tem Toni Atkins, DSan Diego, could finally upend violent police culture by ending law enforcement immunity and by creating a process to strip the badges of officers who commit serious misconduct.
In place of the existing blank check to use deadly force, SB2 would restore the Tom Bane Civil Rights Act to allow judges and juries to look at facts in each case, rather than trying to divine whether an officer had “specific intent” or “hate motivation” to violate a person’s civil rights.
The law would also finally clarify that officers may be held accountable in California civil courts for wrongful death — a meaningful step toward curbing the ongoing epidemic of police violence. Currently, it is easier for someone who has been injured, maimed or paralyzed by law enforcement to hold the responsible officer accountable for violating their civil rights than it is for the families of those killed by illegal force or abuse of authority.
George Floyd should be alive today. Erik Salgado should alive today. After decades of watching officers abuse their power with little or no consequence, California must now do its part to end the police culture and legal protections that have allowed this violence to fester unchecked. It’s time to set a higher standard for the country to follow by holding police accountable for civil rights violations.
Julia Yoo is president of the National Police Accountability Project. Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield are cofounders of Ben & Jerry’s and cochairs of the Campaign To End Qualified Immunity.