At issue is Assembly Bill 392, known as the California Act to Save Lives, which would put the onus on officers to justify discharging their weapon, shifting the standard from “reasonable” – as defined by the Supreme Court’s Graham v Connor ruling in 1989 – to “necessary.” That means that, under the proposed bill, police must feel confident it is necessary to shoot to protect themselves or others from danger, or they could be prosecuted for killing a person.

Instead of reaching for their guns, officers would be pressed to engage in de-escalation tactics that aim to reduce tension between officer and suspect. Experts said these include listening to the suspect’s story, explaining the actions an officer is about to take and ensuring that the suspect’s dignity is preserved throughout the interaction.

California has the highest percentage of police shootings per 100,000 people among states with more than 8 million residents, said Seth Stoughton, a former police officer who is a law professor at the University of South Carolina and an expert on deadly force rules.

“The states are all over the map in the way they regulate deadly force, with some being very permissive, and that’s where California is right now,” said Stoughton, noting that the Western state shares that reputation with Georgia, Texas and Florida. Among large states, New York has the fewest officer-related shooting deaths.

“This new bill would make the preservation of life law enforcement’s top priority in California,” said Stoughton, who wrote letters to California lawmakers in support of the bill. “Having the state Legislature tell police officers, ‘This is the job we expect you to do’ is an important piece of symbolism.”

AB 392’s co-sponsor, Assembly member Shirley Weber, D-San Diego, said the law would encourage police to consider nonlethal methods when bringing suspects into custody.

“The piling on of killings of often unarmed civilians by police for the past six or seven years now is wearing on the conscience of this nation,” she said. “The thought after these shootings often is, ‘Isn’t there something else police could have done?’ And maybe sometimes there are other things.”

Critics said AB 392 ignores the nuanced difficulties inherent in police work and will have a calamitous effect on everything from policing practices to recruiting.

“This bill is an affront against anyone who wears a badge, and if people understood its consequences, nobody would vote for it,” said Assemblyman Tom Lackey, R-Palmdale, who served on the California Highway Patrol for 28 years. “Unless you’ve been in this arena, you don’t understand how fast things unfold.”

Lackey said officers take their power to kill extremely seriously, recounting a CHP colleague who became so distraught after one fatal shooting that he became an alcoholic and killed himself.

Lackey said there is a problem exists with policing protocols, which have resulted in the high-profile shooting deaths of civilians such as Stephon Clark, a Sacramento man who was killed by police officers in March 2018 while carrying only a cellphone.

“But this bill isn’t the solution to that problem,” he said, warning that the new policy could lead to tragic results for officers. “You change the policy midstream, and you’ll cause officers to think before reacting, and that time gap is going to be deadly.”