California’s crime rates soared in the 1970s and became a potent political issue that Republicans used, with great effect, against Democrats by accusing them of being soft on crime.
More or less simultaneously, a Democratic Legislature and governor, Jerry Brown, enacted collective bargaining for California’s public employees.
Those two seemingly discrete events spawned a clever – perhaps cynical – political bargain between the state’s Democratic politicians and newly empowered law enforcement unions.
The politicians would support the unions’ bread-and-butter goals, such as enhanced pensions, binding arbitration on police union contracts, a unique “bill of rights” for police officers accused of misconduct and other laws that shielded them from the accountability imposed on other civil servants.
In return, the unions provided Democratic politicians with campaign endorsements that they employed to stave off the soft-on-crime epithets of Republican rivals.
The mutual backscratching was embedded in the state’s political culture for decades.
Crime Rates Have Declined Sharply
Crime rates have declined sharply from their very high levels of the 1970s and 1980s and no longer occupy high places in polling of Californians’ fears. Democrats have become utterly dominant at all levels of government and no longer must worry about challenges from a feeble Republican Party. And Democrats are much more likely to embrace criminal justice reforms than lock-‘em-up laws.
Two legislative conflicts underscore how the alliance between cops and Democrats has eroded.
Last year, over the strident objections of law enforcement officials and unions, the Legislature passed and Gov. Brown signed legislation that repeals one of the special protections that cops had enjoyed – sealed records on misconduct cases.
Senate Bill 1421, carried by Sen. Nancy Skinner, an Oakland Democrat, requires law enforcement agencies to release disciplinary records of officers involved in unjustified shootings, crimes and other forms of misconduct.
Some unions have sued to block implementation of the new law, some police agencies destroyed their records rather than release them, and some are insisting that the law is not retroactive.
Even Attorney General Xavier Becerra has dragged his feet, refusing requests for misconduct records on the state’s own law enforcement officers.
The second conflict is an even starker example of how the alliance has diminished.
Legislation Was Proposed to Change the Standard
The issue is the almost blanket exemption that police enjoy when they employ deadly force. Current law says that even the most careless shootings of suspects are excusable if the officer had a “reasonable fear” of death or serious physical harm.
Last year, in the wake of two very questionable, and fatal, police shootings in Sacramento, legislation was proposed to change the standard to using deadly force only when “necessary.”
Police bitterly opposed the bill, carried by Shirley Weber, a Democratic assemblywoman from San Diego, and it was sidetracked in the Senate.
Weber is back with a similar measure, Assembly Bill 392, this year and police groups have countered with Senate Bill 230, by Sen. Anna Caballero, a Salinas Democrat, that would require police agencies to provide better training and adopt other policies to minimize the use of deadly force.
Caballero’s measure would also tighten up the “reasonable fear” standard to “reasonably believes the suspect poses an imminent threat of death or serious physical injury…”
The competing factions and legislators conducted extensive negotiations on a compromise, but could not reach agreement, so both bills will continue their journeys through the legislative process.
The breakdown of the Democrat-police political alliance is part of a broader phenomenon. Now that the Democratic Party is completely dominant in California, vis-à-vis Republicans, it is becoming a collection of quasi-parties competing among themselves for internal relevance.
CALmatters is a public interest journalism venture committed to explaining how California’s state Capitol works and why it matters. For more stories by Dan Walters, go to calmatters.org/commentary.