A bill that would create statewide standards and regulations for law enforcement use of projectile weapons and chemical agents in crowd control situations was signed into law by Governor Gavin Newsom on Thursday.
Assembly Bill 48, authored by Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez (D-San Diego), would prohibit the use of projectile weapons and ammunition, such as rubber bullets, and chemical agents, such as tear gas, to disperse any assembly, protest, or demonstration unless all de-escalation techniques have been used first.
The bill also makes it clear that such methods can only be used by officers who trained in those methods, that warnings must be given before using those methods against protesters, that time needs to be given for the crowd to disperse after warnings, that incidental impact on unintended targets (bystanders, medical personnel, journalists) must be kept at a minimum, that help and medical assistance for those hurt or in distress must be made, and that projectiles must not be aimed at the head, neck, or other vital areas of the body.
Projectiles and chemical agents must also not be used against crowds solely due to violating curfew, not complying with a law enforcement directive, or to counter a verbal threat.
AB 48 would also have every law enforcement agency involved in incidents when projectiles or chemical agents are used to post online an entire summary of the events within a short timeframe. The annual submission of projectile/chemical agent use incidents to the Department of Justice would also be changed to monthly.
Assemblywoman Gonzalez wrote AB 48 in response to the force used by law enforcement agencies against protestors, journalists and others in the George Floyd protests. Specifically, she noted the serious injuries caused by rubber bullets, beanbag rounds, foam rounds, and other projectiles.
“During nationwide protests over the past year following George Floyd’s death, images and videos captured the severe injuries caused by police officers deploying pepper spray and tear gas and indiscriminately firing rubber bullets at peaceful protestors, journalists, and bystanders,” noted Assemblywoman Gonzalez in a press release on Thursday. “Despite being considered “non-lethal” or “less lethal” weapons, kinetic projectiles like rubber bullets, beanbags, and foam rounds have caused serious bodily harm, including broken jaws, blindness, traumatic brain injury, and ruptured testicles.
“By specifically requiring a justification for why the use was necessary and why any de-escalation tactics failed, AB 48 will help curb the excessive use of these weapons by law enforcement.”
AB 48 proved to be a very divided bill in both the Assembly and the Senate, with early support levels forcing Gonzalez to make large alterations to the bill, such as removing a passage that would have outright banned the use of tear gas by law enforcement. While Republicans and select Democrats in both houses still opposed the bill following the changes, it finally garnered enough support, passing 26-10 in the Senate and 49-19 in the Assembly in early September.
Praise for, opposition against AB 48 passage
Many organizations involved in the protests approved of the passage of AB 48 on Thursday, such as Black Lives Matter (BLM) and multiple anti-police brutality groups, as did many civil rights organizations who have opposed those kinds of force for years. Lawmakers in favor of the bill also praised its signing.
“We’ve all seen and heard horrifying stories from those who were severely harmed by projectiles like rubber bullets and chemical agents. There is no excuse for these weapons to ever be indiscriminately fired into a crowd,” said Assemblywoman Gonzalez on Thursday. “AB 48 finally creates basic standards to help minimize the excessive, unwarranted use of these dangerous weapons. This law will protect Californians’ right to safely protest without risking permanent or life-threatening injuries.”
However, many law enforcement groups, as well as many civil safety organizations, denounced the bill’s signing, noting that police will now be much more limited in how they can respond to preserve the peace in cities during violent protests.
“The number of homicides and crimes went way up during those protests, and they would have undoubtedly been worse if it wasn’t for policing employing those non-lethal methods against crowds,” said “Marco,” a LAPD officer who helped control crowds in the George Floyd protests in Los Angeles last year. “My dad had served during the Rodney King riots in 1992, and he told me what to expect. In training, they tell you what to expect. But to see it happen, it’s crazy. We need to protect the city, and these protesters, as much as they labeled us bad, they were setting buildings on fire and taking potshots at cops. We needed to make a lot of quick decisions to corral them and to try and get them to stop.”
“If we had these restrictions last year, I’m not sure if we could have. We would have been like the Capitol cops in Washington, doing all we could but having to allow the worst to happen because we didn’t have the tools to use.”
“This law doesn’t take them away, but it really reduces how or when we can use them. It’s only going to lead to less safe protests in future if we can’t do our job.”
Other states have signaled that their own versions of the AB 48 law would be introduced soon, with many waiting for it to be signed first.
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