Police shooting reform spreads to California, and Washington led the way

Anytime Washington can serve as a shining example to other states by modeling compromise on a divisive public policy matter is an occasion worth celebrating.

But when another West Coast state follows our lead by making progress to stop fatal police shootings, quenching years of simmering unrest between racial-justice and public-safety advocates, it should bring more than just an ordinary celebration.

There should be dancing in the streets.

This week, the California state Assembly achieved a major bipartisan breakthrough by adopting a police use-of-force bill with a resounding 66-0 vote. It establishes a new legal standard for when law enforcement officers are justified taking lethal action, changing the vague term “reasonable” to the less permissive language “based on the totality of the circumstances.”

This might seem like semantic hair-splitting, but it isn’t. While the ultimate interpretation of the terminology will be left to judges, people on both sides believe the change will result in fewer needless deaths, setting clear guidelines for cops and increasing their training and use of non-deadly tactics.

California police unions and racial-justice activists, who butted heads for years over the legal standard, moved toward common ground in recent weeks. Momentum picked up after last year’s tragic death of Stephon Clark, an unarmed black man shot by Sacramento police while holding his cellphone in his grandparents’ backyard. Pressure mounted further after the Sacramento County district attorney filed no charges against the officers who killed Clark.

Despite Wednesday’s unanimous Assembly vote, the compromise didn’t win over all shooting-victim family groups or activist organizations, including Black Lives Matter, who feel it doesn’t go far enough. But it has the support of Clark’s family, among others. “Slow progress is better than no progress,” said Stevante Clark, Stephon’s brother.

Assuming the Senate approves the bill and Gov. Gavin Newsom signs it, as expected, California will have one of the strongest deadly-force standards in the country.

If all this sounds familiar, it’s because Washington paved the way last year by changing its own legal standard, drawing a clearer line on what constitutes a justifiable killing by a law-enforcement officer.

Legislators in Olympia voted to drop Washington’s uniquely police-friendly “malice” shield that made it virtually impossible to prosecute a reckless cop; they retained the “good faith” clause, which means officers still can make split-second decisions to defend themselves or the public in life-threatening confrontations.

Washington voters affirmed the changes at the ballot box last November, approving Initiative 940 with a nearly 60-percent yes vote.

As in California, Washington had to overcome years of stalemate between police unions and activists. And in both state capitols, there were emotional speeches on both sides of the aisle when the deciding votes were cast.

Was it mere coincidence that California’s breakthrough came a year after an accord was reached in our state? That seems unlikely.

We believe Washington’s leadership helped set the tone for political reconciliation and street violence de-escalation — and that, ultimately, innocent lives will be spared all over the West Coast.