Things were looking negative for individual police officers and police forces in California earlier this year.
Job vacancies piled up, state Attorney General Rob Bonta seemingly launched constant brutality investigations and there was copious negative publicity about so-called capture-and-release of shoplifters and other misdemeanor suspects.
New rules also compelled most police to wear body cameras tracking almost every move they make.
All this has been fallout from the police killing of the African American George Floyd in Minneapolis in 2020.
But late summer brought a fast turnabout for law officers in many places.
Begin with recruiting bonuses and starting salaries. As vacancies stared them in the face and police response times climbed, many cities began offering large sums to new recruits who complete training and become sworn peace officers.
San Francisco now hands out $5,000 signing bonuses and has raised entry-level pay to about $108,000. Richmond police won a labor contract giving them raises of 20% over the next two years. Los Angeles police are on the verge of a new pact that will increase starting pay by 13%.
Incentives also include free gym memberships and dry cleaning for uniforms in many cities. But the richest benefits for rookie cops are coming in Alameda, whose force had vacancies in about one-third of its authorized positions just last spring.
Money changed this quickly. Jobs are no longer going begging since the city council of the Oakland suburb authorized $75,000 enlistment bonuses and a base salary starting at $110,000 yearly, not including overtime.
Then came the courts. Led by judicial appointees of ex-President George W. Bush and ex-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, both federal and state courts have lately expanded police privilege. The recent decisions may eventually be reversed, but for now, they’ve handed police officers vast new license.
First came the state’s Fresno-based 5th District Court of Appeal, where a three-judge panel ruled early this fall that committing documented perjury as a sworn witness may not be enough to guarantee a cop’s firing.
The 2-1 decision authored by Presiding Justice Charles Poochigian, a former Republican state senator named to the bench by Schwarzenegger, held that when a Merced officer testified he had opened containers in a motel room accidentally, while in fact they could not have opened without being deliberately unzipped, it was not automatic grounds for dismissal.
“Whether termination was an abuse of (police department discretion) should be (up to) the trial court,” Poochigian wrote. So the cop’s lying about how he came to open containers without a warrant, the judges ruled, was not necessarily grounds for dismissal.
Mere days later, a panel of the federal Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that a policeman who shot a naked man allegedly trespassing in a gym locker room was not personally liable for killing the man, but was protected by “qualified immunity,” which shields police from personal responsibility when they do not violate “clearly established law.”
The panel originally ruled last spring that circumstances of the shooting should leave the policeman liable to pay damages for the fatal shooting, but one of the original panel members resigned from the bench before that decision became final. When a George W. Bush appointee replaced that judge, the newly shaped panel first voted to vacate the original ruling, then to reverse it.
In both cases, dissenting judges were appointees of Democrats, and the majorities were named by Republicans. Both decisions stand a strong chance of being reversed on further appeals, the perjury result possibly by the state Supreme Court and the “qualified immunity” ruling by an 11-judge “en banc” panel of the Ninth District.
In both cases, the political leanings of the judges involved — not the facts — appeared to be major factors. Republicans voted to give police more leeway and more protection from responsibility for their actions, while Democrats voted to be tougher on them.
At least for the moment, both decisions remain on the books, giving law enforcement more legal shielding than officers had lately appeared to possess.
All of which has made the last few weeks the most relaxed time in several years for police in California.
Email Thomas Elias at [email protected]