Dueling use-of-force bills spur heated Capitol debate

Community activists packed the state Capitol on Tuesday as an Assembly committee mulled a controversial measure that would require police officers to conform to a stricter standard before using deadly force.

Assembly Bill 392 by Assemblywoman Shirley Weber, D-San Diego, is one of two high-profile police use-of-force bills making its way through the Legislature.

Police and activists don’t agree on much, except that the issue has become highly emotional and is in need of legislative action. Police organizations argue that AB392’s changes could endanger officers as they make split-second decisions. Reformers say that too many Californians — especially African-American and Latino men and mentally disabled people — have been unnecessarily killed by officers in recent years.

It is a life-and-death issue that hasn’t been reviewed for eons. In fact, California’s lethal-force law dates back to 1872. The Assembly Public Safety Committee ultimately voted 5-2 to approve the Weber bill, but it faces a rocky road given the opposition from some of the most powerful political forces in the state. Indeed, a couple of lawmakers supported the bill not because they necessarily agree with its content, but because they want to keep the conversation alive.

Specifically, the Weber bill “Limits the use of deadly force by a peace officer to those situations where it is necessary to defend against a threat of imminent serious bodily injury or death to the officer or to another person,” according to the Assembly analysis. It’s the same bill she introduced last year, but it has garnered more momentum this year after police shot to death a Sacramento man whose cellphone they mistook for a gun.

The alternative law enforcement-backed measure is Senate Bill 230, which would leave the use-of-force standard the same, but would require local agencies to adopt new policies. It also calls on a state agency to establish new standards and guidelines. The bill includes some attorney general-recommended reforms, but is the epitome of a “do little” bill, given that it punts on the toughest issues, mainly calls for more training and gives agencies a pretext to ask for more taxpayer money to do what they already should be doing: training officers to de-escalate situations and deal with difficult encounters.

Under current law, police officers may use deadly force if it is deemed to be “reasonable.” In reality, officers almost always say they feared for their life and that using their weapon was reasonable under the circumstances. That’s often true, but not always. District attorneys are reluctant to press charges given the broad nature of the standard. Even when video footage reveals a troubling decision by the officer, that decision usually is deemed “reasonable.” Changing that standard to “necessary” would be a substantive change.

Police have to make quick decisions, but so do members of the public in some police interactions. “They can be in the right place, they can say the right thing, they can have the right attitude when approached by an officer, and still find themselves in situations that take their lives,” Weber said.

We’re not sure her bill is the ideal approach, but its specific and substantive proposals are far more likely to keep a real and necessary conversation going than a superficial alternative designed mainly to give nervous legislators political cover.

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Decriminalize Southland carpool lanes

The one vast place that is California is all car country, whether your ride is a tiny urban electric you can park sideways or a monster farm truck with knobby tires higher than all of that tiny Fiat.

So why do the rules of the road change when you drive different parts of the Golden State?

In the Bay Area, for instance, a driver with the right to do so can enter and exit carpool lanes at will and wherever, not just when the striping changes from yellow to white.

Not down here, you can’t.

But here in Southern California there are also county-to-county discrepancies, especially when it comes to those carpool lanes — and their siblings, whether known as diamond lanes or the Los Angeles County-dubbed Express Lane, or their second cousins once removed, Orange County’s toll roads.

It’s confusing enough for a native driver. What about our tourists and other visitors?

The whole system needs to be regularized and de-red taped.

And especially, as L.A. County Supervisor Janice Hahn has been on a proper crusade about last week and this, the roads in her county need to be de-criminalized.

Say you’re late for a flight at LAX, driving on the 10 or the 110, it’s red tail lights as far as you can see down the road — but in the lane right next to you, traffic is flowing. You’ve got a passenger. Can’t you just pop into the carpool lane and make the plane?

You ought to be able to. But if you haven’t bought a fancy transponder gadget for our front windshield and you do so, you’re breaking the law. And that’s a really lousy way to run a freeway.

Fines are $25 for the first violation. If not paid on time or ignored, a $30 delinquent penalty is added, bringing the fine to $55, plus the cost of the toll. If a motorist is pulled over by the CHP for illegal use of the toll lane, the fine is $341.

Hahn rightly says that the occasional user in Los Angeles County, just as in Orange County and Bay Area pay lanes, ought to be able to jump into the fast-fast lane and get to the airport or the church on time and simply get a bill in the mail based on a photo taken of the license plate.

But, as our transit reporter Steve Scauzillo uncovered last week after filing a public records request, there’s a powerful bureaucratic incentive within Metro to maintain the status quo: The Express Lane “crimes” have created a cash cow for the agency. The fines for illegal use of Express Lanes represented 36.4 percent of the revenues collected by Metro from 2014 to 2016, according to an audit. Total revenues for the lanes were $130.9 million, with $47.3 million from fines and $83.6 million from the actual paid tolls.

“I would like to decriminalize our Express Lanes,” Hahn told Scauzillo. “It’s this whole shaming thing just for jumping into an Express Lane that bothers me. I think people in L.A. feel like driving and parking have become a criminal activity.”

Hahn rightly says the “pay-as-you-use” model for all motorists is the ultimate goal. Those who want to get a transponder can still be offered discounts or easier billing. But stop making us criminals when there are enough real crooks out there to worry about.

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Voter intent on Proposition 1 was clear as water, but the state’s bogged down in mud

Nearly four years ago, in the midst of the worst drought in recent memory, California voters approved a $7.5 billion water bond measure that allocated $2.7 billion for water storage — dams and reservoirs, for example.

Yet the funding for projects has been held up. The staff of the California Water Commission doesn’t think the projects submitted provide “public benefits” of sufficient value to justify their cost. File this under “Only in California,” and not in a good way.

Proposition 1 contained fine print requiring proposed water storage projects to offer specific benefits to the public, which is fine, but “water” isn’t counted as one of the benefits.

A competitive process is used to award the funding, and the decision-making process is controlled by the governor’s nine appointees to the CWC. The first hurdle to overcome is the “public benefits ratio,” based on the staff-determined value of “ecosystem improvements, water quality improvements, flood control, recreation and emergency response.” The dollar value placed on those ancillary benefits must be great enough to justify the spending of bond money to build the water-storage projects.

The California Water Commission’s website lists the water-storage projects under consideration and the “public benefit” scoring of each. Public comments are invited at comments@cwc.ca.gov.

So far, the California Water Commission’s scoring process has identified a total of only $1.7 billion in “public benefits” in the 11 projects under consideration, meaning $1 billion of the money the voters authorized for water storage will not be spent.

This is the kind of thing that makes voters look askance at bond measures and public infrastructure generally. When voters approve $2.7 billion for water storage, the public benefit they’re seeking is water storage. To bury misleading language in the small print is to invite cynicism and drive future voter participation even lower. The Legislature should act immediately to pass clean-up language for Proposition 1 to make the law line up with the voters’ intent.

That measure should be placed on the November ballot for voter approval, and the water storage projects should go forward before we find ourselves in a crisis of our own making.

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Plots thicken in the FBI Russia investigation

The allegations of Russian collusion in the last presidential election are serious, and our country is right to have the FBI investigating them.

But at the same time the FBI has to be trusted, or its findings won’t be seen as credible. Recent reports of outspokenly anti-Donald Trump agents formerly serving the bureau in the investigation aren’t helping. Some GOP lawmakers are calling for a second special counsel to investigate the FBI and the Justice Department following the revelation of anti-Trump bias on the part of an FBI agent who worked on both the Hillary Clinton and Trump investigations.

It would be unfortunate if a new special counsel investigation sealed the story in secrecy for months or years longer, just as the final report of an investigation into the DOJ and FBI is about to be made public.

Eight days before Trump was sworn in as president, the inspector general of the Department of Justice opened an investigation into the actions of the Justice Department and the FBI in the probe of Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server as secretary of state.

Inspector General Michael Horowitz said his inquiry would look into FBI Director James Comey’s public announcements about the Clinton email investigation and whether some decisions and releases of information were based on “improper considerations.”

It’s the role of an inspector general to investigate possible wrongdoing by government agencies and officials and make the findings public in a report. That’s different from the role of a special counsel, who is a criminal prosecutor conducting an investigation in complete secrecy.

Even after Comey was fired by the president in May, the inspector general’s investigation into his actions as FBI director continued, along with a broader investigation into the decisions and actions of other employees of the Department of Justice and FBI.

The IG’s probe turned up thousands of personal texts between two FBI employees that showed intense anti-Trump bias. Peter Strzok, a former counterintelligence agent who had worked on the Clinton email investigation, had written to his friend, FBI lawyer Lisa Page, that Trump was “an idiot,” “a douche” and a “loathsome human.”

At the time of this discovery, Strzok was working on special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Trump’s alleged collusion with the Russian government.

Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein told the House Judiciary Committee on Wednesday that Mueller removed Strzok from the case in July, as soon as he heard about the anti-Trump texts. One text in particular, in which Strzok wrote that “we can’t take that risk” of Trump possibly being elected president, drew the attention of GOP lawmakers.

Separately, Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wisconsin, said he obtained an internal FBI copy of Comey’s July 2016 statement in which he declined to recommend criminal charges against Hillary Clinton for the mishandling of classified information. Johnson said the statement showed evidence of edits that watered down the language — the term “grossly negligent” in the original document was changed to “extremely careless,” a crucial legal distinction. The inspector general’s report is expected to be completed and released to the public in a matter of weeks, and it may shed some light on what was happening inside the FBI and DOJ while voters were casting ballots in primary elections.

If the report shows that individuals in the Justice Department and the FBI engaged in illegal conduct, criminal charges may follow. But first, the public deserves to know what the government has been doing. That shouldn’t be secret any longer.

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No-growth NIMBYism comes to Irvine

This notion of “if you don’t build it, they won’t come” that has seemingly permeated local residents and their representatives is a fallacy. The state, and county, are in the midst of a housing crisis that NIMBYism won’t solve. They’re already here. We need housing.

But NIMBY no-growth measures continue to be pushed across Orange County. Irvine, a national model for meticulously planned development, is apparently not immune.

According to the Register, “Karen Jaffe and Arthur Strauss, on behalf of Irvine for Responsible Growth, recently submitted to the city ‘An initiative to give the people of Irvine control of their future.’”

“If this initiative passes, developers would have to get voter approval for any project that adds significant traffic, 40 or more housing units or 10,000 square feet of non-residential use and requires general plan or zoning changes,” the Register wrote.

To be sure, no one likes sitting in traffic and the peaceful enjoyment of your home is certainly something worth protecting. But initiatives like these don’t promote “responsible” growth. They promote no growth at all. They add months, if not years, to the development process, increase costs, add uncertainty and perhaps drive away new development — even where it is not opposed.

They are an excuse to make our housing crisis someone else’s problem, and many of the problems that the anti-development crowd hopes to solve by not building actually seem to exacerbate the issue. It artificially reduces housing stock and inflates prices, incentivizing building and density, and puts more cars on the road, and for longer, as people must buy homes farther and farther away from their places of employment.

Even Councilwoman Melissa Fox, who in past years ran on a “slow-growth” ticket and pledged to instate a moratorium on development in 2014, worries the measure will stifle affordable housing, child care facilities and developing the Great Park.

“It goes so far that I can’t support it,” she told the Register.

We shouldn’t shut the door on newcomers to protect those who already have theirs. We should grow in a way that makes sense. This measure doesn’t make sense — it’s NIMBYism to the extreme.

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Remilitarizing police not the way to be tough on crime

On Monday, President Trump lifted Obama-era restrictions on the federal 1033 Program that distributes surplus military equipment to local police departments.

Trump’s executive order speciously characterizes the move as merely “restoring state, tribal, and local law enforcement’s access to life-saving equipment and resources.” In reality, Trump’s action will primarily encourage and subsidize the trend of militarized law enforcement, which does more to undermine public trust than keep police or the public safe.

In 2015, President Obama issued an executive order banning the transfer of certain types of surplus military equipment to local law enforcement agencies and imposed strict requirements for accessing other types of military equipment. In the aftermath of heavily militarized police crackdowns on protestors in Ferguson, Mo., Obama rightly observed that “militarized gear can sometimes give people a feeling like they’re an occupying force, as opposed to a force that’s part of the community that’s protecting them and serving them.”

Nationwide, according to a 2014 Obama White House review of federal programs providing military equipment to local law enforcement, 460,000 pieces of “controlled property” — items on the Department of State Munitions Control List or Department of Commerce Control List — were in possession by local police. This included 92,442 small arms, 44,275 night vision devices, 617 Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected vehicles and 616 aircraft.

The types of equipment banned from transfer under Obama’s order included things like bayonets, grenade launchers and tracked armored vehicles. For access to other types of surplus property, like Humvees and drones, Obama’s policy required local police to first obtain approval from their respective governing body — city council, county supervisors — and provide clear reasons to the feds for why the equipment was needed.

These reasonable restrictions have now been undone, for erroneous reasons.

Arguing that the restrictions were based on “superficial concerns,” Attorney General Jeff Sessions said in a speech Monday at a Fraternal Order of Police conference that Trump’s removal of restrictions was necessary to “send a strong message that we will not allow criminal activity, violence and lawlessness to become the new normal.”

The idea that it is necessary to uphold the rule of law by making grenade launchers available to school districts — as happened with the Los Angeles Unified School District, which at one point had three of them — or other military equipment to local police might make sense in an authoritarian society, but it shouldn’t in the United States.

At a time when reducing police uses of force ought to be the goal, Trump has chosen to disregard concerns over police militarization in favor of appearing tough on crime.

Practically, with the issuance of Trump’s executive order rescinding President Obama’s, it is now the responsibility of state and local governments to impose and abide by their own restrictions. The militarization of local police isn’t something that should be subsidized by the federal government, nor is it something that should be tolerated by the American people.

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San Juan Capistrano finally gives Ortega Highway widening the green light

After years of foot-dragging, the San Juan Capistrano City Council voted 4-1 to support the widening of a 0.9-mile stretch of the Ortega Highway. The reversal on Aug. 15 came two months after an Orange County Grand Jury report blasted the city for its resistance to expanding the two-lane segment of highway. At the very least, we are glad that most council members have finally come around.

“I think it’s not a bad idea at this point,” said Mayor Kerry Ferguson, who, the Register noted, voted in 2016 to cancel the project.

With at least 43,500 vehicles using the highway every day, and more expected with growing populations and thousands of homes added with the Rancho Mission Viejo development, it has been obvious for a long time that the segment of the Ortega Highway in San Juan Capistrano needed to be widened.

In 2011, an agreement was reached between the California Department of Transportation, the city and the Hunt Club Community Association explicitly laying out the aesthetics and the scope of the widening. Caltrans permitted the city to assume the role of lead agency, which proved to be a mistake, as the city proceeded to complicate matters.

After securing millions of dollars in grants from the Orange County Transportation Authority, as well as funding from developers, the council reversed itself in 2014 and sought to oppose the project, pandering to the interests of a few who didn’t want to make it easier to drive through the city. Further reversals followed, prompting the county Board of Supervisors to designate O.C. Public Works as the lead agency in 2016.

This series of events, according to the grand jury, caused an unnecessary delay in the project, held up millions of county funds that could have been used elsewhere, and drove up the estimated costs of the project from between $25 million and $30 million in 2011 to $52 million today.

Alas, despite finally realizing the futility of opposing the inevitable widening, the council disputes the idea that “the delay was unnecessary or that it cost the county millions of dollars” in its official response to the grand jury.

We think the record of the project speaks for itself, and speaks to the folly and high cost of catering to NIMBYs for political convenience.

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State senators must ask tough question of PUC nominees

There are some indications that Clifford Rechtschaffen, one of Gov. Jerry Brown’s two latest appointments to the state Public Utilities Commission, would be more of an advocate for utilities than for consumers, ratepayers and those adversely affected by environmental issues.

That’s why the Senate Rules Committee needs to ask tough questions of Rechtschaffen in his confirmation hearing this week.

In December, Brown appointed two of his advisers on environmental and climate change issues, Rechtschaffen and Martha Guzman Aceves, to six-year terms as PUC commissioners. They replaced outgoing Commissioners Mike Florio and Catherine Sandoval in January.

Rechtschaffen and Guzman Aceves will face the Rules Committee, chaired by Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de León, D-Los Angeles, in their confirmation hearings Wednesday afternoon.

The two new appointees were in place when the PUC ruled it was safe to reopen Southern California Gas Co.’s Aliso Canyon natural gas storage facility at a reduced capacity less than two years after the biggest methane leak in U.S. history displaced thousands of residents from the Porter Ranch area. Los Angeles County filed suit, arguing that the facility should not be allowed to operate until an independent investigation of the cause of the leak is complete — which seems a logical approach but was spurned by the PUC.

Liza Tucker of Consumer Watchdog sent an eight-page letter to de León, co-signed by leaders of Save Porter Ranch, Food & Water Watch, Rootskeeper and a law firm — opposing Rechtschaffen’s appointment “on the basis of Mr. Rechtschaffen’s record of favoring the oil and gas industry.”

The letter alleges that Rechtschaffen “fired two top oil and gas regulators, Derek Chernow and Elena Miller, who were trying to make oil and gas drilling safer.” Tucker cites a legal declaration by Chernow, as part of a lawsuit against the Brown administration and oil companies that claims they poisoned Kern County aquifers, as evidence that Rechtschaffen fired the two regulators at the behest of Occidental Petroleum, which subsequently donated $500,000 to support Brown’s Proposition 30 tax measure.

De León and the other senators on the Rules Committee need to get to the bottom of these allegations and satisfy themselves that they are groundless before confirming Rechtschaffen’s appointment.

They need to ask Rechtschaffen why he fired and replaced the two regulators. Was there pressure from Occidental or any other petroleum company to replace them? Did pressure, if any existed, come through the governor’s office?

And why the rush to reopen the Aliso Canyon facility? Could that decision not have been put off until the investigation of the cause of the blowout was complete? Did the decision put the financial interests of SoCalGas’s parent company, Sempra Energy, or anyone else ahead of the safety of neighboring residents?

The PUC’s reputation has been tarnished considerably by its failures in relation to the deadly explosion in San Bruno of a Pacific Gas & Electric gas line, and by alleged coordination between then-commission president Michael Peevey and Southern California Edison on who would pay for the San Onofre nuclear plant closure.

The Senate committee must satisfy itself that these new PUC appointees will represent the pocketbooks and the health and safety of the people of California above the financial interests of the state’s big utilities and energy companies.

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State pension fund divestment policies leave Californians another day older and deeper in debt

The politicization of state pension fund investments has once again come back to bite us — this time in coal stocks — harming taxpayers and government employees alike.

Under the Public Divestiture of Thermal Coal Companies Act of 2015, the California Public Employees’ Retirement System and California State Teachers’ Retirement System were required to divest their coal holdings by July 1, 2017. Unfortunately for taxpayers, this divestment coincided with a strong rebound in coal stocks. As the Sacramento Bee reported, “Stocks for 13 of the 14 companies are worth more than they were a year ago when the pension fund was divesting from the industry.”

This is just the latest example of politically motivated divestment policies, which have also targeted tobacco companies, firearms manufacturers, private prison operators, companies that might compete with state and local government workers for contracts, and companies that did business with apartheid South Africa. This has often had a significant negative impact on pension investment performance. CalPERS’ divestments cost it approximately $8 billion over a 15-year period, according to an October 2015 report from Wilshire Associates, CalPERS’ main investment consultant.

That has not stopped politicians from sacrificing the pension funds’ fiduciary duties for their own ideological crusades, however. During the current legislative session, lawmakers have put forward proposals to divest companies that build or finance the Dakota Access Pipeline, companies that work on President Donald Trump’s border wall, and Turkish bonds.

Not only do these measures hurt taxpayers, who must make up the difference whenever the pension systems’ investments underperform their assumed averages, they also harm many existing government workers, particularly at the local level, as the resulting higher government pension contribution rates mean that pension costs are taking up more of the budget and squeezing out government services — and government jobs.

It has gotten to the point that a number of unions, who typically support the Democratic lawmakers that push for such divestment policies, have begun to speak up about the perils of ideological investing.

“It’s time for CalPERS to re-evaluate their investment strategies and focus more on improving their investment returns and less on ‘socially responsible’ investments,” Steve Crouch, director of public employees for the International Union of Operating Engineers, which represents roughly 12,000 state maintenance workers, told the Bee.

“We cannot afford to lose funding for law enforcement officers in exchange for a socially responsible investment strategy,” Police Lt. Jim Auck, treasurer of the Corona Police Officers Association, told CalPERS board members at a meeting in May. “Your fiduciary responsibility is to the employees, the employers and the taxpayers of this state, not to the many agendas of the many special interests that dominate Sacramento politics.”

Playing politics with government workers’ and retirees’ pension funds does not serve them or the rest of the taxpayers in the state. This is all the more reason to remove politics from the equation altogether and switch to a 401(k)-style defined-contribution system that lets workers invest their retirement funds as they please.

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Gov. Brown’s office should release PUC emails

It has been three years since a settlement agreement was reached over the costs of shutting down the San Onofre nuclear plant, but many questions remain.

The San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station’s shutdown in 2012 and decommissioning in 2013 was precipitated by the failure of replacement steam generators, resulting in a minor radioactive leak. A substantial debate ensued over how much of the estimated $4.7 billion in costs for replacement power, utility investments and ongoing maintenance would be borne by ratepayers, and how much would be borne by the plant’s owners, majority owner Southern California Edison and San Diego Gas & Electric, which holds a minority stake.

A settlement was ultimately proposed in March 2014, and finalized by the California Public Utilities Commission in November of that year, that called for ratepayers to be responsible for $3.3 billion (70 percent) of the price tag.

Still more controversy then unfolded over revelations of a March 2013 meeting between former California Public Utilities Commission President Michael Peevey and then-Edison Executive Vice President Stephen Pickett that took place during an international energy conference in a luxury hotel in Warsaw, Poland. During the meeting, Pickett used hotel stationary to jot down an outline of a potential deal to resolve the shutdown issues, a framework that was similar to the settlement that was ultimately adopted. Many were outraged when the secret meeting came to light in 2015, and Edison was slapped with a $16.7 million fine — still a relatively minor amount given the sums involved in the deal — for failing to disclose it.

San Diego attorney Mike Aguirre, who previously served as the city attorney for San Diego, called the settlement agreement a “travesty of justice,” and later filed a lawsuit over the deal and the refusal of the PUC and Gov. Jerry Brown’s administration to release 63 emails between PUC President Michael Picker and the governor’s office during the time the settlement agreement was being put together in 2013. Many suspect that the emails might shed some light on the (possibly untoward) dealings with regard to the settlement, and whether the Brown administration was involved.

In light of these developments, the PUC ultimately agreed to reopen the settlement, and the Aguirre lawsuit is ongoing.

The PUC claims that the emails are exempt from public open record laws because they relate to the agency’s internal decision-making process and because Brown’s role as governor means the communications are privileged. But critics contend that they may be directly related to the public’s business, and thus should be a matter of public record.

At the very least, the actions of the PUC and Gov. Brown’s office to stonewall over the release of the communications creates the air of malfeasance. With billions of dollars of the public’s money at stake, if there is no evidence of wrongdoing, Brown or the PUC should be happy to release the emails. And if there is evidence of misconduct, it is all the more important that the agencies be forced to turn over the documents in the public interest.

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