Californians injured by police or family members of those killed in such encounters may qualify for financial compensation from the state crime victims fund under a controversial bill making its way through the state Legislature.
Senate Bill 299, by state Sen. Connie Leyva, D-Chino, would allow the injured or families of the dead to receive financial aid for recovery, burial or other costs from a fund typically used for victims of traditional crime.
The bill unanimously sailed through the five-member Senate Public Safety Committee on Tuesday and is on the way to the Appropriations Committee, with opposition from law enforcement agencies that say it would take precious resources away from traditional crime victims and give them to “perpetrators of crime.” The bill counters traditional thought promoted by law enforcement that use of police force is generally justified.
Under the proposal, the family of someone shot and killed by police could receive compensation even if the shooting is deemed justified.
Over-reliance on police
The bill takes away what some see as the compensation board’s over-reliance on police reports and law enforcement documentation to decide whether requests for financial aid are warranted. The bill would allow victims of police violence to present other forms of evidence, such as witnesses, to bolster their application for aid, as is the case for sexual assault and domestic violence victims.
“It is unacceptable that in order to receive assistance through the Victim Compensation program, police reports and the opinion of police would carry such heavy weight in the application for compensation, when the injuries were sustained as a result of police actions,” Leyva said. “SB 299 will improve access to vital resources for victims of police violence as they recover from the physical and emotional injuries caused due to the actions of police or — in the cases of individuals killed by police — be able to bury their loved ones with dignity and respect.”
Anyone convicted of a crime associated with their police injury or who harms another person in commission of the crime would not be eligible for the funding, Leyva said.
Reform-minded prosecutors support
Backing the bill is the progressive Prosecutors Alliance of California, founded by four reform-minded district attorneys, including Los Angeles County’s George Gascon.
Cristine Soto DeBerry, executive director of the new alliance, said police rarely face penalties for use of force.
“Most of these cases do not result in criminal charges, but there certainly has been harm and there’s a victim,” DeBerry said. “Most families are left on their own.”
The compensation board usually depends on potentially biased police reports to determine whether the injured person was at least partially to blame. Leyva’s office said victims also can be turned down for not cooperating with police.
“It’s pretty hard to get the people criminally or civilly liable to say, you are a victim,” DeBerry said. “It (the bill) is unusual and it is exactly what prosecutors should be involved with. These are victims just like any other victims and they need the support of prosecutors in recovering from that harm.”
Pushback at hearing
The bill received pushback at Tuesday’s committee hearing from Larry Morse, legislative director for the California District Attorneys Association. Morse told the panel that the proposal essentially would allow anyone alleging police brutality causing injury or death to potentially receive payments regardless of whether the accused peace officer was arrested or charged with a crime.
He said Leyva’s bill “ignores the reality that use of force by peace officers is most often lawful and justified — not criminal,” and that claimants, despite their own culpability, could be entitled to claim compensation.
Morse pointed to the Dec. 2, 2015, terrorist attack in San Bernardino, where 14 people were slaughtered in a mass shooting and the attempted bombing at the Inland Regional Center before perpetrators Syed Rizwan Farook and his wife, Tashfeen Malik, were shot and killed by police following a vehicle pursuit through the city.
“Do we really want to deny payment to individuals who have truly been victims of crime in order to pay perpetrators of crime?” Morse said, adding that the proper place to pursue compensation if someone believes an officer was negligent or brutal is civil court.
Revisions under review
DeBerry said the bill is still being revised and tightened in committee to address some outlier situations.
“My hope would be even if people differ on whether police should be charged with a crime, we all agree we should help people when they are hurt, even when they are hurt by police, especially if they are hurt by police,” she said.
San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin, who is endorsing the Senate bill, started a similar program for victims hurt or killed by police. In one year, the program has paid for one funeral/burial at a cost of $7,500.
The Victim Compensation Board did not return a request for comment.
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Author: Tony Saavedra, Joe Nelson
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