SE. Williams | Contributor
“The only way we can address the influence of money [on elected officials by police unions and others] is by organizing peoples’ voices. Organizing voices is more powerful than organizing resources or money.”
– California Governor Gavin Newsom
Governor Gavin Newsom has a vision for the state of California. It is a vision that includes grappling with the myriad of police issues which produced the overwhelming public response in the wake of George Floyd’s death at the hands of Minnesota police two short weeks ago.
In an exclusive interview with the Black Voice News, Governor Newsom spoke openly about the progress California is continuing to make on many of the tough issues fueling unrest not only in this state but across the country and around the world.
The governor spoke openly about the areas of focus he introduced on Friday, June 5, 2020, which called for an end to the violence; new crowd control measures; and for police departments to eliminate training in the use of the Carotid Artery Hold. Although the officer who killed Floyd did not use this technique, it raised awareness of the various restraints used by police that can result in death.
Governor Gavin Newsom visits Black-owned business EsoWon Books in Los Angeles’ Leimert Park as part of his California listening tour that has included Stockton, Oakland, and Sacramento. (Photo: Office of the Governor)
Explaining why he appeared to prioritize these items over the many concerns about police abuse, Newsom explained, “We are looking through all our rules and regulations in this state. We are holding ourselves to a higher level of accountability and expectation to do more and to be better. Clearly, looking at the criminal justice frame is a priority, I think it is important, particularly as it relates to the police use of force.”
“We made tremendous progress last year,” he stressed before adding how proud he was to stand next to Dr. Shirley Weber, chair of the California Legislative Black Caucus in August of 2019 as he signed the most significant “deadly use of force” bill in the nation. Weber authored AB 392, which limits the use of deadly force by police to only being authorized when it is necessary in defense of human life.
Continuing, the governor shared, “We were very proud to have followed-up with an effort to put into law new policies on reporting the excessive use of force, making it a duty of police officers to de-escalate, making it a responsibility to intercede with those using excessive force, and to provide medical care to those in need in real time.”
After listing these successes however, the governor added with emphasis, “All those things we were able to accomplish last year—but, it is not enough.”
He went on to describe how his administration is reviewing all the recently implemented changes to determine what the status is, what the guidelines are that were put in place regarding them, and to see how they are being applied at the local level.
He further advised that they are working to hold themselves to a higher level of accountability on this issue. “This is the way we are proceeding in terms of the framework for prioritization.”
Since the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis Police, Californians have joined the millions of protestors around the world calling for systemic change and police reform in the U.S.
Police Unions and the Power of their Influence on Elected Officials
Newsom further addressed concerns about the power of police unions and their influence on politicians –through campaign contributions—and ultimately, legislation designed to change the status quo. Police unions pour a lot of money into campaigns at the state and local levels. For many in the Black community, it seems to serve as a foundation to stack the powers of political persuasion more solidly on the side of police as they work to block nearly every legislative proposal intended for change.
At the end of the day, as a result of the Citizens United decision in 2010 that codified the rights of people to be able to express themselves by making unlimited personal contributions, the governor opined, “The only way we can address the influence of money [on elected officials by police unions and others] is by organizing peoples’ voices. Organizing voices is more powerful than organizing resources or money.”
Bolstering his response Newsom added, “I’ve seen it over and over again where even those that have the most money to invest are drowned out by the voices of the masses demanding something.”
“In the world of Citizens United it is difficult to restrain their speech; but, there is also the freedom of speech,” he asserted.
“These protests have ignited a new energy, a new expectation,” he acknowledged. “I can promise you I can care less about the money that people will threaten. We have a deeper threat, that is, to who we are as a society, what we stand for. Our values are under assault and that, to me, is more foundational. So, we will work through any organized opposition. This is a different moment.”
The governor explained how legally, there is no capacity to limit peoples’ free expression as it relates to campaign contributions. “You can cap the amount and require more transparency, and in California we have really led the way for the nation in terms of our transparency rules and regulations, and our reporting requirements.” He noted how cities like his old city of San Francisco for example, caps campaign contributions at $500 dollars. The state cap is substantially higher.
Newsom emphasized the real power resulting from the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United, “is independent expenditure campaigns which basically allows free reign to these groups to use unlimited amounts of money to further their agendas. So, there is no legal capacity.” The governor noted the options that do remain available however, include more transparency and contribution limits that can be put in place.
“But, let me just say this,” Newsom continued. “When we passed AB 392 last year (Police Officers Use of Deadly Force), the organized money against that was pretty significant, but it was drowned out. We were able to get that bill done. I signed it, in spite of the opposition, despite the money.”
He continued, “I want people to be hopeful here. Just because somebody writes me a check, or someone threatens to write a check to my opponent, we must do the right thing. That is why we are here. If we can’t do the right thing, shame on us,” he asserted and continued.
“So, I’m not going to let that be an excuse and it should not be an excuse for local officials either. Shame on those local officials,” he declared stressing again. “Do the right thing. And if it means you don’t get a check. You don’t get a check. And, if it means you have more opposition, still do the right thing.”
To further dramatize this point about the need for elected officials to be more courageous he said, “We don’t have enough of that. If there was an updated version of [President] John Kennedy’s book, “Profiles in Courage,” it would be pamphlet size right now. It’s time to step up,” he challenged.
Continuing he offered, “I think there is momentum for change. The people are with us.”
Assemblymember Shirley Weber at the signing of AB 392, the legislation she authored limiting the use of deadly force by police.
California’s Progress in Efforts to Reform Policing and Criminal Justice
Over the previous seven or eight years, California has enacted several important pieces of legislation related to police and criminal justice. Proposition 36 which called for drug treatment instead of jail; Proposition 57 which gave nonviolent offenders the opportunity for early release from jail; Proposition 47, which requires offenders be sentenced to misdemeanors instead of felonies for non-serious, nonviolent crimes unless however, the defendant has previous convictions for murder, rape, and/or certain sex and drug related crimes; in addition to the legalization of marijuana.
The governor also pointed to issues being addressed in his most recent budget which will close two state prisons within our lifetime. “We are shutting down prisons, we are going to eliminate the Department of Juvenile Justice, this is in the budget. This is not made up, this is real. There is something happening here, and we have to accelerate the change,” he stressed with a note of optimism in his voice.
“In California there has also been probation reform. We are going to allow people on probation to vote with ACA 6 [the movement to free the vote for Californians on Parole]. It will be on the ballot. We are seeing some momentum and I want people to know that. The quickness to which there is a demand to make things happen sooner, is there. That has to be ‘heated’ and we have to advance.”
The Police Officers’ Bill of Rights
The governor then weighed in on the controversy over the Police Officers’ Bill of Rights (POBR). Many medical doctors hold life in their hands daily. Airline pilots are responsible for the safety of those who fly in their planes, but these professions like every other where there are risks, must maintain insurance to protect themselves from suits, etc. related to their professions.
Police on the other hand have a level of protection/implied immunity not enjoyed by any other profession in this country.
“Engaging in the reform is an essential effort and we are working with the Legislative Black Caucus on this issue,” the governor acknowledged. “There was an effort two years ago to pierce it with the Right to Know Act, SB 1421, which gave the public access to misconduct records after years of opposition.”
SB 1421, according to Newsom, finally provided some progress in this area though it is limited to three areas including sexual assault, serious injury, and dishonesty.
“There is an appetite for engagement [on this issue] and I know those conversations are happening anew and we are going to be very involved in seeing what can be accomplished.”
The Requirement to Wear Body Cameras has Fallen Short
Beyond calls focused on the need to radically change and/or eliminate the special protections provided by POBR, requiring officers to wear body cameras which initially provided a tenuous hope and was a tool to help hold officers accountable in Black and Brown communities, has failed to deliver the level of transparency expected. There are far too many instances where officers have failed to turn their cameras on or claimed it malfunctioned, or in some instances where there is police video is made available, images may be blacked out or the video appears manipulated in some other fashion.
California’s AB 748 requires the release of body worn camera footage within 45 days of a critical incident. While many believe 45 days is far too long, Newsom noted California is one of the few states with any rules on this at all in this regard.
“At least we have it,” the governor asserted adding, “I agree we need to provide that footage as soon as possible.” And promised, “We certainly will look into how individual departments are handling this law—it is still fairly new. Also, it is absolutely incumbent we investigate these other instances where people are turning off the footage, where footage is missing.”
“Absolutely that is something that should be investigated and during the investigation [determine] whether there should be consequences related to people that are manipulating that footage and omitting certain key elements of that footage. Again, all of this is relatively novel, but it is incredibly important that California continues to lead.” Acknowledging, “The bar is pretty low [in this regard] and maybe we can raise it a little higher.”
The Right To Know Act
Newsom also responded to concerns many in the Black community have over how, when an incident of police violence becomes public, almost immediately the victim’s whole life is laid bare it appears, in an apparent attempt to disparage him/her without ever disclosing any information about the background of the officer involved. Whether the officer has a history of abuse or a laundry list of complaints against him/her is too often difficult to ascertain. This imbalance has historically shaped public opinion against the victim.
In considering how this disparity can be eliminated, the governor pointed to newly introduced legislation authored by California Senator Kamala Harris and New Jersey Senator Cory Booker, two of only three Black Senators in the U.S. Senate. The legislation calls for the elimination of qualified immunity for police as well as the creation of a federal database containing reports of any use of force by police.
Here in California, the Right to Know Act implemented in 2019 reflects the state’s most significant progress at the individual officer level. As noted above, it requires such disclosure in instances involving sexual assault, dishonesty and serious injury and death.
“That’s progress,” the governor shared, “but, not at the level of the POBR conversation and the Due Process conversation. The Police Officers Bill or Rights makes it difficult to move some of these initiatives forward because of the unique protections it provides.”
Governor Newsom contended the good and bad in the Harris-Booker legislation is, California is already leading in this area. “I’m encouraged by it,” he stated while acknowledging, “We are still not close to where we need to go and be, that also includes local law enforcement.”
Newsom also confirmed his appreciation for the “8 Can’t Wait Campaign” which consists of an eight- point strategy of reforms designed to reduce police killings. The recommendations include solutions like banning chokeholds, a reporting system for use of force incidents, requiring officers to intervene when they witness misconduct, etc.
“It is a simple frame where we can begin a conversation—not end it,” Newsom offered. “On that campaign California, with the exception around our guidelines about shooting into moving vehicles, we have made some real progress at the state level and more still needs to be done.” Adding, “Leadership is a bottom up paradigm, not top down. We really need to see mayors leading, city administrators, local police commissions.”
According to Newsom, the states must also continue to do more. He spoke about the role congress must play in pushing for change. Commenting on the impediment to progress Senate leader Mitch McConnell has been, the governor stressed. “We will get to Mitch McConnell eventually. His time is coming up. I mean that quite literally.”
Rehiring Police Fired from Another Agency
Among the other concerns members of the Black community believe must change, is the current freedom of police officers who are held to account and fired from one department for misconduct, etc., to just simply apply and be rehired by another police agency. This is an unspoken practice many believe must end.
“It’s common sense to address that,” the governor declared. “It’s just common sense. My gosh, are we as dumb as we want to be as a society? There is nothing about that, that doesn’t make sense to reform. We have this incredible group of leaders we have assembled to address issues like this.”
He continued, “We had this on our list last year. It is at the top of our agenda [this year]. We are working with the CLBC [on this issue]. I hope we can make some progress this year.”
Do Curfews Violate One’s First Amendment Rights?
Another controversial issue addressed by the governor involved questions over the legality of the curfews implemented in locales across the country—including here in California—due to the massive response to the murder of George Floyd, and whether those curfews violated First Amendment rights.
“This is one of the reasons I announced Ron Davis, who led President Obama’s 21st Century Policing Taskforce, and civil rights advocate Lateefah Simon, to guide a conversation on this. People have a fundamental right to protest without being interfered; a right to do so without being assaulted; a right to do so freely; and that is clearly being infringed upon by these curfews. And so, they are looking at this across the spectrum.”
He added, they are not just looking at this issue, but also the use of tear gas and rubber bullets. “They have been tasked to advise us on new standards across the state on the right to freely assemble and the First Amendment question regarding curfews and how [freedom of assembly] is impacted by these local curfews.”
Adding, “I want their guidance and their counsel. It’s a legal question, it’s a moral question, and it’s a question of constitutional rights as well. And yes, it is a public safety question. One can’t just dismiss that outright. As a former mayor I respect that as well.” He concluded, “I’m looking to them in real time to provide us guidance on this.”
Ron Davis, who led President Obama’s 21st Century Policing Taskforce and civil rights advocate Lateefah Simon have been tasked with advising the Newsom administration on new policing standards across the state.
The Use of Teargas During the COVID-19 Pandemic
Medical experts have warned against the use of teargas during COVID–19, calling it a public health disaster as it helps spread the virus. People subjected to teargas cough and gasp for air spraying droplets in the process. Questions are being raised regarding whether this was considered before it was so universally used on demonstrators who were already at risk of contracting the illness just being Black and walking in a crowd.
“The reality is, that was not considered,” Newsom acknowledged. “It is self-evident just looking at what we’ve seen over the last ten days. It just has not been part of the conversation. Again, to the spectrum of the reform that is needed to standardize an approach to the engagement of the use of force—not deadly force. In this case though, it could be exacerbating health issues. This is why we’ve assembled the advisory group.”
According to the governor, the California Highway Patrol has higher standards for the use of teargas and rubber bullets than local law enforcement. “We are evaluating all of these protocols across the spectrum. Teargas is what you see [used] in a third world country and tragically, we’ve seen it used in the rearview mirror in this country.”
“In a contemporary sense,” he expounded, “We’ve got to do better than that. We’ve got to. I know California will lead on this. We must lead on this and I hope in the next few weeks to have some clarity. We are resolved to answer that question on the health perspective and more over on who we are as a society in terms of the use of force.”
In Los Angeles hundreds of demonstrators were arrested during the weeks of protests following the killing of George Floyd. Photo by Joseph Ngabo
Reviving Affirmative Action in California
At the conclusion of the interview, Newsom took a moment to comment on the issue of Affirmative Action advising, “I’ve long been desirous of reform.” Regarding the current effort under the stewardship of CLBC Chair Dr. Weber, the governor explained if the legislature gets the requisite support to move the initiative forward, it will go directly to the voters and not to his desk for approval. However, he was also clear in his commitment to working for its passage adding, “I will be campaigning for it. I will be voting for it. And, I’ve long been a supporter of the reform.”