On Tuesday, a bill that would have banned the use of tear gas, rubber bullets, and other “less lethal” projectiles such as bean bags by the police to be used on crowds died in the Senate when time ran out on the session at midnight.
A bill that would ban many non-lethal crowd control methods
Assembly Bill 66, authored by Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez (D-San Diego), specifically noted what the new parameters would be for law enforcement use of such “kinetic energy projectiles or chemical agents” for use on “any assembly, protest, demonstration, or other gathering of persons.”
Non-lethal projectile measures would not be deployed solely in instances where curfew is being enforced or when police are being disobeyed. Specific tear gas for breaking up crowds, chloroacetophenone tear gas and 2-chlorobenzalmalononitrile gas, were specifically banned by AB 66.
The bill would allow such projectiles to be used against people, but they would only be used at a “specific target” that is a “clear and imminent threat to themselves, the officers, or other persons”.
If the bill had passed, the new measures would have gone into effect on January 1st for all law enforcement agencies in California.
In addition, a new policy on reporting any incident where such a projectile injured someone it was being used against would have been made law by 2023, with law enforcement agencies needing to file a yearly report on projectile usage starting in 2024. Local law enforcement agencies would also have had the power to request that federal agencies who are also deployed to not use those same projectiles and methods in dispersing crowds.
George Floyd protests revitalized AB 66 after a long COVID-19 pandemic hiatus
Assemblywoman Gonzalez wrote the bill last year as a way to deescalate situations involving large crowds by other ways and to make the police accountable for their actions at such events. AB 66 had initially been popular, with the Assembly passing the bill 78-0 in January during a floor vote. But then the bill petered out after COVID-19 hit. While still active, it had been put aside and had been largely forgotten by Spring.
However, the George Floyd protests and riots in late May and June had brought many accusations of police brutality and unfounded violence in breaking up crowds by injured protesters and bystanders. This breathed new life into AB 66, rising through committees with a wave of new bill supporters.
“Even when it’s used, this bill would require a couple of things beforehand. First of all, they would have to be a threat to an actual person. Law enforcement would have to try de-escalation first,” said Assemblywoman Gonzalez earlier this year. “Where they see some sort of property damage being done, does not give them the right to use less-than lethal weapons on the entire crowd.”
Even by late August it was still being passed by large margins, as it was passed by the Senate Appropriations Committee 7-0.
But in recent days, a major push by law enforcement organizations and the rapidly approaching end of session had backtracked the bill.
“AB 66 would have severely limited police in stopping violence from breaking out,” explained former police officer and SWAT team member Peter Kirby to the Globe. “Police have been under attack in cities like Portland, and earlier this year, in cities in this state. We know how to handle them and what tactics work. But police have seen this wave of people saying that it’s ok to throw stuff at the police and point laser pointers in their eyes, but we should show restraint in stopping them. It isn’t a one way street. We need to protect the people and property, and we can’t properly do that if we can’t use tear gas.”
“What this bills says is that they have to attack us first before we can use any of the ‘banned’ methods, which is ridiculous. We need to do our job and this pretty much says we can’t.”
A surprising last day ending to AB 66
Despite the controversy brewing over the last few days, AB 66 and many others bills were then expected to have a quick last day discussion and vote on Monday, with debate being restricted during the last hours of the session. Outcries from lawmakers over not having time to thoroughly review or debate such bills were countered back by Democrats saying that the session had been abbreviated due to previous COVID-19 outbreaks and that a last day of rapid legislative action was needed to get the backlog of bills voted on.
Senate Republicans, nearly entirely removed from the floor and forced to vote remotely due to the Senate’s COVID-19 quarantine protocol, mounted a last day charge to bring debate back, citing it as part of the legislative process.
“Senate Democrats just voted to limit the number of speakers on a bill to only two speakers. This silences the voices of millions of people so democrats have enough time to pass their crappy bills before midnight. This is outrageous and is COMPLETE BULLSHIT,” tweeted Senator Melissa Melendez (R-Lake Elsinore) in response to the debate cut back.
Senate Democrats just voted to limit the number of speakers on a bill to only two speakers. This silences the voices of millions of people so democrats have enough time to pass their crappy bills before midnight. This is outrageous and is COMPLETE BULLSHIT.
— Senator Melissa Melendez (@senatormelendez) September 1, 2020
With mounting pressure, Democrats allowed debate again. This led to more speeches by Senators, allowing the clock to run out at midnight and killing many bills in the process, including AB 66.
Despite such a dramatic ending, many lawmakers hinted that more law enforcement limiting bills would be introduced during the next session as well, with a possible return of a bill similar to AB 66.
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