The first Black lawmakers to lead the California Legislature’s two public safety committees at the same time promised Tuesday to bring “radical change” to improve treatment of Blacks and Latinos by law enforcement.
They acknowledged, however, that their goals don’t differ much from previous legislative attempts and may not bear fruit for another generation.
Sen. Steve Bradford and Assemblyman Reggie Jones-Sawyer, both Democrats from Los Angeles, spoke in sometimes intensely personal terms arising from their own experiences while previewing what they hope to accomplish together.
“We can now focus like a laser to make sure that our communities are not continuing to be oppressed,” Jones-Sawyer said.
He has led the Assembly committee since 2016 and literally had a target placed on his head by the state prison guards’ union in a campaign ad in the last election.
Bradford is the only African American in the state Senate. He takes over the committee from Sen. Nancy Skinner, a white woman from the liberal enclave of Berkeley whom both men credited with long promoting a multi-racial push for reforms.
“We hate to always make it about race, but it is about race in this country. And until you have an opportunity to walk a day in my Ferragamos, you’ll realize there is a different perspective and it’s a different treatment when you encounter law enforcement in this state and in this country if you’re Black and brown,” Bradford said.
When the state Legislature reconvenes next week, the two lawmakers are planning to revive stalled bills that would allow regulators to end the careers of bad officers, open more police records to public scrutiny, strip officers of some immunity from damages in lawsuits, and require officers to intervene if they see unjustified uses of force by colleagues.
Jones-Sawyer also is seeking to boost the age and education requirements for rookie police officers.
His proposal would increase the minimum age to become a officer from 18 to 25, but those under 25 could qualify if they have a bachelor’s or advanced university degree.
Organizations representing California police chiefs and rank-and-file officers proposed legislation in November that would require prospective officers to complete college classes addressing mental health, social services, psychology and communication, but would not require a degree.
“The reason I wanted better educated folk and more mature folk in law enforcement, is because we are not the enemy,” Jones-Sawyer said. “And when you come into our communities, you should not look at it as if it’s Afghanistan or some occupied country. You should look at it as if it was your neighborhood, and how you would treat people in your neighborhood.”
Jay Jordan, executive director of Californians for Safety and Justice, which advocates for reforms, said he gets emotional thinking about the ascension of Jones-Sawyer, 63, who was born in Arkansas, and Bradford, 60, who was born in Texas.
Both were “born in Jim Crow South … born into segregation,” Jordan said. “They are now responsible to ensure that laws are passed to advance public safety for all. When they were born, public safety wasn’t for everybody.”
The ongoing need for systemic criminal justice reform was shown by a report this week from the Racial and Identity Profiling Advisory Board detailing disproportionate arrests, searches and uses of force against Black people by police, both men said.
“The numbers don’t lie,” said Bradford. “We have the numbers to support radical change here in California as it relates to criminal justice and I hope we’ll be able to do that through this public safety committee.”
Jones-Sawyer said the goal is to gradually weed out incompetent or biased officers and replace them with others who are better trained.
“Maybe in 10 years, 20 years, Mr. Bradford and I can sit in our rocking chairs and when they talk about that police brutality is down by 80%, he and I can both go, ‘We did that,’” Jones-Sawyer said.
“And then the rest of this community can say ‘We did that, we started that in 2021,’ and now we’re in a better place that my grandchildren won’t have to worry about being stopped by law enforcement.”