By Robert Lewis | CalMatters
On a Wednesday afternoon in April 2018, Gardena police officers heard a “triple pager” on their radios – three high-pitched squawks indicating an emergency. As many as 20 shots were reportedly fired near a local park.
“That gets you a little adrenaline pumping,” Gardena Police Officer Michael Robbins would later tell investigators.
Within minutes, a 25-year-old black man, Kenneth Ross Jr., was killed: Officer Robbins shot him twice and killed him as he was passing through Rowley Park. Police said a gun was found in the dead man’s shorts pocket, and Robbins would later be cleared by local authorities of any crime.
But the case was far from over.
What happened on April 11, 2018, which generated immediate screams for police accountability and demonstrations, is now a centerpiece of a bill that is arguably California’s largest criminal justice proposal in this legislative session. .
The bill would allow California to decertify police officers for misconduct, effectively stripping them of a license to work in law enforcement and expelling them from the profession. California is one of only four states in the country without that power. As a result, several high-profile cases have been reported over the years in which an officer involved in a questionable shooting was allowed to remain on the streets, only to kill again. The agents were also fired for irregularities in one department and then quietly moved to another agency.
“California can revoke the certification or license of bad doctors, bad lawyers, even bad barbers and cosmetologists; it can even remove an elected official, but it cannot decertify police officers who have violated the law and the public trust.” states Senator Steven Bradford said at a committee hearing earlier this year. Bradford, a Gardena Democrat who chairs the public safety committee and lives near where the shooting occurred, introduced the bill along with Senate Interim President Toni Atkins.
In the Gardena shooting, the local police, as they usually do in such cases, investigated the shooting. The district attorney’s office cleared Robbins of wrongdoing because it said the officer believed the man fleeing him was armed and could have reasonably feared for his life.
But advocates of criminal justice reform say that for too long the responsibility of the police has been solely in the hands of local agencies: the police control themselves. They question whether the man Robbins shot in the back was actually a fleeing threat and point out that it was the officer’s fourth shooting, suggesting he was too quick to use deadly force.
Bradford’s bill is the latest effort to break through the wall of legal protections built over the years that critics say shield California law enforcement officials from accountability. CalMatters was only able to obtain internal police reports and video about the Gardena shooting because a 2018 law first opened certain police records, including files related to the use of deadly force and some misconduct. Another law that went into effect this year requires the state attorney general’s office to handle investigations into police killings of unarmed civilians.
“This nation has cried out, especially in the black and brown communities, for change,” Bradford told CalMatters, ticking off a list of high-profile police killings and incidents of use of force from Stephon Clark in Sacramento to Oscar Grant in Oakland. and Rodney King. In Los Angeles. “He’s definitely late.”
But there is still work to be done, he added.
“It’s one thing to pass laws. Another is to change the mindset and internal training and operations of law enforcement, ”Bradford said.
And his bill is far from certain, as police associations and chiefs across the state have signaled their opposition.
“Nobody wants bad officers to be removed from law enforcement more than good officers,” Brian Marvel, president of the California Peace Officers Research Association, said in a statement to CalMatters.
“When an officer acts in a way that is grossly inconsistent with the missions and goals of our profession, it tarnishes the insignia and the great work officers do every day to keep our families and communities safe.”
But he added that the bill as written creates a “partial and unclear process for revoking an officer’s license.”
The bill would create a new division within the state’s Peace Officer Training and Standards Commission to investigate or review possible misconduct. A nine-member advisory board would consider the evidence and recommend whether to strip a certification officer. The majority of that board would be civilians with no police experience, including four members who would be experts in “police responsibility” and two who personally suffered the use of force by an officer or lost a loved one in such an incident. The commission would have the final say on decertification, but the bill’s language suggests that they are expected to adopt the advisory board’s recommendations when they are reasonably supported by evidence.
As to what constitutes a violation that could cost an officer a career, it is unclear. The bill includes categories such as sexual assault and dishonesty, but would let the commission develop a comprehensive definition of “gross misconduct” that also includes broader areas such as “abuse of power” and “physical abuse.”
“We all want to see a fair and transparent decertification system that permanently removes officers for serious misconduct, but even with the recent amendments (the bill) fails to create a balanced and uniform process,” said Abdul Pridgen, president. Of California. Association of Chiefs of Police, in an email to CalMatters. “However, we remain committed to continuing our work with the governor’s office, legislative leaders, and Senator Bradford to address our remaining concerns and establish a decertification process that we can all have faith in.”
Among the sticking points for the association are the composition of the advisory board, the degree to which that board’s recommendations are binding, and what will happen if a local department exonerates an officer but the state commission finds wrongdoing.
A decertification bill failed in the last session. The current bill came out of the Senate, but not without changes. The initial version had made it easier for civilians to sue officers for misconduct, but that language has largely disappeared.
The most recent amendments reduce the role of the advisory council. Bradford’s spokesman said those changes were made after working with the governor’s office and key legislators. The original bill gave the advisory board the power to order the commission to investigate certain officials. The new version, however, simply says that the board can recommend research. It also reduces a license fee for officers.
Police unions have been donating to some Democratic lawmakers who could play a role in imposing additional changes, news that prompted a sharp tweet from Senator Bradford accusing opponents of trying to “kill sound politics.”
“If you can’t win on the merit of your argument, do you resort to paying the legislators? SHAME, BUT NOT SURPRISING !! ”He tweeted.
Advocates said they are concerned that powerful police associations will further weaken the bill.
“They are trying to evade responsibility over and over again,” said Sheila Bates, a member of the Black Lives Matter Los Angeles policy team and part of the coalition that is co-sponsoring the bill. “If (Gardena police officer) Michael Robbins had been held responsible for the first, second or third time when he shot someone, then Kenneth Ross Jr. could still be alive.”
Records from the investigation of the shooting show that when Officer Robbins approached the scene, he saw other officers arriving and Ross, who matched the suspect’s description, flee. Robbins parked, grabbed his assault rifle, and yelled for Ross to stop.
“They’re going to shoot you,” Robbins yelled.
Video from his body camera shows what happened next.
Standing behind the engine block of his patrol for cover, the barrel of Robbins’ rifle tracks Ross’s movement. Right after Ross crosses in front of Robbins’ position, perhaps 100 feet away, the officer gives the trigger two quick taps. (“I gave it … a double tap that was just amazing, the training just started,” he told researchers later.) Ross falls to the ground dead.
It was the fourth time Robbins had shot someone in his nearly 30-year career, although it was his first shot since the early 2000s, he later said.
The Gardena Police Department, which is currently facing a lawsuit over the shooting, declined an interview request. The attorneys representing the officer also did not comment for this story.
As for Robbins, the pending decertification bill probably wouldn’t affect him. He retired from the Gardena Police Department in July 2020 with the rank of sergeant, records show. But if future officers are expelled from the profession, it will be because of a bill named after the man he killed.
Next month, lawmakers will take the Kenneth Ross Jr.Police Decertification Act of 2021.