Theresa Smith lays down a blanket on the grounds of Anaheim Cemetery one morning before wiping the hardened dirt from her son’s headstone. This December will mark 10 years since five Anaheim officers shot Caesar Cruz to death in a Wal-Mart parking lot. She began protesting outside police department headquarters that same weekend and finally settled a civil suit in 2015. But Smith’s activism continues, despite the toll it takes on the 72-year-old.
“Sometimes, when I’m feeling really down or I maybe want to give up fighting after all these years, I come here, sit down and talk to him,” she says. “I get rejuvenated to continue this work for police accountability, which is hard to do.”
These days, that means flying to Sacramento to advocate for the California Act to Save Lives (Assembly Bill 392) ahead of passing its first hurdle at the April 9 Assembly Public Safety Committee hearing. Closer to home, there have been smaller victories in the past decade. Disclosure policies make public not only full-length investigation letters from the Orange County district attorney’s office in police-shooting cases public, but also body-camera footage from the few departments that have since adopted them, including Anaheim. But on Dec. 11, 2009, when policemen killed Cruz, none of those reforms or policies existed.
Authored by San Diego Assemblywoman Shirley Weber, AB 392 takes a step beyond transparency toward accountability. It seeks to raise police use of deadly force to a statewide “necessary” standard when no reasonable alternative is viable. A similar bill championed by Weber arose after the controversial fatal police shooting of Stephon Clark, an unarmed African-American, in Sacramento, but it was shelved. This bill faces competition in the form of Senator Anna Caballero’s Senate Bill 230, introduced a day after Weber’s; it stays within the boundaries established by U.S. Supreme Court cases on deadly force while emphasizing more training.
Black Lives Matter, the American Civil Liberties Union, Youth Justice Coalition and the United Domestic Workers union support Weber’s bill, but law-enforcement groups are backing SB 230. It’s a divide that cuts right through Orange County.
“I’m not opposed to police oversight, new legislation or even policy changes as long as they are well-thought-out and fair,” says Edgar Hampton, president of the Anaheim Police Association. “SB 230 is a much [fairer] bill.”
He offers statistics to underscore his point that when Anaheim police use force, it doesn’t happen very often. Last year, the department received 200,000 calls for service. Out in the field, police used force 152 times and opened fire in four officer-involved shootings. “If you look at how many uses of force actually occur with our department, you can see that Anaheim is not the hotbed of police brutality some make it out to be,” Hampton adds. “Despite the constant barrage of claims of police brutality, the numbers just don’t add up to that.”
Headed by Michael Gennaco, the Office of Independent Review made 20 recommendations for the Anaheim Police Department following a report on officer-involved deaths in 2015. The department adopted most of them, save for those regarding deadly force issues such as the suggestion that cops shoot in “small bursts” before reassessing a given threat. The former trial attorney for the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division has a different take and finds AB 392 neither disagreeable nor incompatible with SB 230. “To adopt legislation that provides more training to police officers, how can anybody be against that?” he asks. “The more tactically proficient an officer is, the less likely that officer is going to end up in a situation where he or she feels constrained to use deadly force.”
But the schism remains for advocates on both sides.
“Whenever we try to get any accountability in any way, shape or form, law enforcement will fight it every step of the way,” says Smith. When not in Sacramento, the activist stays busy visiting the local offices of elected officials such as Assemblyman Tom Daly. Activists with the Santa Ana-based group Chispa joined in her effort, bringing copies of the Weekly’s 2017 cover story “Blood Orange” to Daly and State Senator Tom Umberg. In publishing the first and only data sets on officer-involved shootings countywide, it revealed that between 2006 and 2016, 173 police and sheriff deputy shootings ended in 96 deaths, a 55 percent clip. Blacks and Latinos proved to be disproportionately killed in such encounters.
During that decade, former Orange County district attorney Tony Rackauckas didn’t press charges against a single officer in a police-shooting case. Smith is hoping AB 392 will change all that by setting a new standard that could result in criminal negligence charges for cases that warrant them. “I know that families would love for it to be more, but it’s a start,” she says. “This will, in fact, give district attorneys the power to prosecute.”
So far, the data hasn’t proved persuasive; no one representing OC in Sacramento supports AB 392. Assemblywoman Sharon Quirk-Silva cast her lot with SB 230, co-authoring the legislation. “We’ve clearly seen that there is a need because of the many, many individuals who have died at the hands of police,” Quirk-Silva says. “These two bills are moving closer and closer as we speak.” Last week, Caballero announced future amendments to her bill that are said to closely mirror California Attorney General Xavier Becerra’s recommendations to Sacramento police following the district attorney’s decision not to press charges against the officers who shot and killed Clark.
Quirk-Silva, who sat on the Fullerton City Council from 2004 to 2012, recalls the furor over Kelly Thomas’ beating death in 2011 and the acquittal of two policemen in the criminal trial that followed. She also carries stories from her recently deceased brother, who struggled with alcoholism and homelessness, about his sometimes-rough encounters with cops. “The goal for both bills is to reduce deaths by the hands of police officers and to de-escalate excessive force,” Quirk-Silva says. “If Caballero’s amendments don’t make it where she can even get it out, then there will be more attention for the other alternative. It doesn’t mean I’m opposed to Weber’s bill; I just support this one first.”
Back at Anaheim Cemetery, Smith bends over to kiss her son’s headstone as she always does before departing. If AB 392 had been law in 2009, the grieving mother surmises, her life may have been much different. “My son was still strapped in his seat belt—what imminent danger were the police in?” she asks. “For me, it’s too late. But if this bill saves a mother the heartache and the trauma that I’ve gone through, that’s why I continue. I’ll do this until I take my last breath.”
Gabriel San Román is from Anacrime. He’s a journalist, subversive historian and the tallest Mexican in OC. He also once stood falsely accused of writing articles on Turkish politics in exchange for free food from DönerG’s!