Last summer, when California passed landmark law to reduce the shooting of police officers, lawmakers praised the mothers, fathers, and activists who packed the Capitol year-round. They wore T-shirts that remembered the victims of the shooting. Aisles filled with songs and prayers. Flowers placed on the politicians' doorstep. And sometimes hired by the hundreds to share their grief at every hearing on the bill.
"The consistency with which people have come up over and over again," said Los Angeles Democrat Senator Holly Mitchell, when the bill won a key vote last June, "is a strong will."
But popping up again and again wasn't an option this year as the Capitol was closed to the public due to the coronavirus pandemic and lawmakers took a two-month hiatus while staying at home. Lobbying visits have been replaced by phone calls and zooms. The legislature held fewer hearings. Public statements were often a chaotic conference call.
And so, even as the nation raged after a Minneapolis police officer killed George Floyd – and lawmakers introduced several bills in response – support within the statehouse largely withered. Activists filled the streets but couldn't fill the Capitol. The shortened legislative term and the inability to produce the masses made it difficult to put pressure on the legislature.
The result: Legislators sent some watered-down police reform bills to the governor this week while the most controversial proposals stalled in the democratically controlled legislature.
"The possibility of people showing up and holding governors and lawmakers accountable makes a difference. Members of their district come into their office and say, 'How do you vote on that?' It makes a difference," said Natasha Minsker, lobbyist for criminal justice advocacy groups, including Smart Justice California.
"And normal people don't have their lawmakers' cell phone numbers, but every police chief has … Normal people don't have access right now."
Activists tried to grow their presence remotely with celebrities on social media. Kim Kardashian was among those who urged lawmakers to pass a law that created a nationwide system for the badge of an officer to be displayed in the event of wrongdoing or criminal conviction – a proposal the police made as unfair to their procedural rights. The measure died when the congregation did not put it to a vote until Monday, midnight to pass the bills for the year.
A bill to make more records of police misconduct available to the public also stalled late Monday night when the Senate ran out of time to put it on a final vote. And that was after it was narrowed down to mitigate law enforcement objections and a provision was removed to make public all complaints of excessive violence, whether they were substantiated or not.
The Senate has also failed to discuss or vote on a bill prohibiting police from using tear gas or rubber bullets on demonstrators. Police said they only had more dangerous ways to disperse illegal crowds.
Legislature has passed a measure requiring the Attorney General to investigate when the police are killing unarmed civilians. This proposal has stalled in recent years. Supporters see it as a significant step in building trust by making the investigation more independent, although the final version was neither a high priority for activists nor a target of the police opposition.
Legislators also passed a law banning police from using chokeholds and neck rests, which the police did not oppose either. Many departments are already banning this tactic, but the bill would provide a unified policy for the entire state.
"Overall, we've had a good boost," said Rep. Kevin McCarty, a Sacramento Democrat who carried the bill to demand an independent investigation into fatal police shootings. "Did we get every bill? No."
McCarty led an effort for the Black Caucus to pass several laws promoting racial justice, including successful measures to study reparations, require courses in ethnic studies, and curb racial discrimination in jury selection. But he agreed that the pandemic complicated things for those who wanted big changes in policing.
"It was time and the police lobby," McCarty said. "You have the union and the police chiefs calling members and saying we have done enough."
He said the shortened legislative year means lawmakers will not have time to analyze complex areas of the law or resolve differences over months of negotiations.
"We have not been able to have solid committee hearings and look into these issues," said McCarty.
In contrast, after a year and a half of hearings in the Capitol and many private negotiations between civil rights activists and law enforcement lobbyists, it was last year when lawmakers passed the bill that set a stricter standard for the use of lethal force by police. This year nothing was possible in the vicinity.
The police said the circumstances were also hindering them.
"Covid 19 has seriously affected everyone's ability to negotiate bills effectively," said Brian Marvel, president of the influential federation of police unions, the Peace Officers Research Association of California.
"They just aren't as effective as being face to face and can move pieces of paper across the table from one another."
Police unions have long been major political donors to both Democrats and Republicans in California. The California Peace Officers Research Association has spent nearly $ 1 million on state political campaigns since last year, records show, including donations of $ 280,000 to the California Democratic Party and $ 152,500 to the California Republican Party . Checks on the campaigns were drawn up by eleven seated lawmakers in mid-August when lawmakers were ready to vote on numerous bills. Marvel said the timing didn't reflect anything other than when its board of directors held a quarterly meeting and approved the donations.
Marvel and Tom Saggau, a spokesman for the police unions in Los Angeles, San Francisco and San Jose, both said they wanted to work with lawmakers next year to negotiate a bill that would create a system for police decertification in certain circumstances. Their strategy is similar to the approach to using violent debates in recent years – lobbying against an early version of the bill and returning the following year to propose compromises.
"Let's get to work now. We're ready," said Saggau. "If we get a call and someone says they want to work on it, we'll put our masks on, jump on a plane and get there."
Willingness to compromise is a fairly new dynamic in the law enforcement lobby, said Senator Nancy Skinner, a Berkeley Democrat who carried the bill to expand public access to records of police wrongdoing.
"Law enforcement has not been enthusiastic about many of these reforms, but unlike other years, they have been more willing to talk about them," she said. "You didn't break all of the bills … Law enforcement in general is in a reflective moment in California."
Skinner denies claims that activists were not heard, citing that the Black Lives Matter movement had an impact on legislation this year.
"Anyone in California who felt compelled and motivated to act in any way after (Floyd's) murder should feel very good that the legislation was responding. While we didn't make it all across the line, we were responsive," said she.
But compromises that amount to symbolic victories without making substantial changes will leave activists unhappy – and possibly disaffected, said Jody David Armor, a law school professor at the University of Southern California who studies race in legal decision-making.
"We piously wave our fingers at the protesters and ask them to cast a vote. Just go to the vote. It's more productive and more sensible to get what you want for real reform," he said.
"If the legislature can't deliver it, what does that say about the effectiveness of the vote?"
Email Laurel Rosenhall to (email protected)