(CNN) — Last week, California State Sen. Steven Bradford said he was confident that “the votes were there” for his proposed bill.
In recent weeks, it had even garnered public support from dozens of celebrities, including Kim Kardashian West who tweeted August 30 that it “will just make police officers accountable if they break the law.”
SB 731 did pass the state’s Assembly, but on the last day of California’s legislative session, the bill did not come up in the Senate before the deadline passed.
Some other proposed police reform bills did pass, including one that requires the state’s attorney general to investigate police shootings and another that bans chokeholds.
But activists and experts said SB 731 and another failed bill — one that would have given the public access to incidents involving use of force — were among the most meaningful.
The flurry of legislation came in the wake of the police killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and other Black people across the US this year — incidents which ignited months of protests and calls for social justice.
In the Golden State, technical issues and political wrangling slowed the legislation process, “bringing the Senate to a halt,” according to the Los Angeles Times.
But Bradford said that he believes opposition from police unions, who argued the bill was biased, proved to be too powerful to overcome and was the reason his bill didn’t come to a vote.
“The problem was the union, and we all know the police have major sway, not only here in California but across the country,” Bradford told CNN. “And it forces people many times to, you know, move away from what they truly believe in under intense pressure.”
Now, after lawmakers failed to pass this type of reform, experts and activists around the country are wondering: If California can’t do it, which state can?
“The fact that progress was very limited in California tells you that everywhere … there’s going to be a lot of pushback,” said David A. Harris, a law professor at the University of Pittsburgh, “that this won’t be easy, no matter where you are.”
The Peace Officers Research Association of California, which represents 77,000 public safety personnel and and over 930 associations, said the bill went too far to remove protection for officers.
The organization argued the bill would include an oversight commission with “members whose qualifications are inherently based on negative encounters with peace officers.”
“We absolutely support creating a licensing protocol that is fair, balanced and protects due process to ensure we have only the best working as officers in California,” PORAC President Brian Marvel said in a statement to CNN.
“However, SB 731 reached far beyond the police licensing process and included policies that would potentially penalize even the most respectful officers for placing themselves in harm’s way to keep our families safe.”
But activists and policing behavior experts disagree, arguing such a law would save lives and prevent “bad cops” from moving from one job to another. These cops are called “wandering officers,” meaning they leave one post after they are fired or resign for using excessive force and are hired at another, according to Roger Goldman, a professor at St. Louis University and an expert on police licensing,
Some experts say it’s ironic that police, who have the power to wield deadly force, aren’t subject to the same decertification process as hairdressers.
“Every other profession you can think of, even those that don’t have the power the police do, like people who cut hair, we do certify them and revoke their licenses for misconduct,” Goldman told CNN.
California is one of only five states that don’t have a decertification law, Goldman said.
The shortfall in passing bills in California is consistent with “what we’ve seen in a lot of places,” said Christy Lopez, former deputy chief of a section of the Civil Rights Division at the US Department of Justice.
Lopez led the investigation into the Ferguson, Missouri, police department after Michael Brown’s fatal shooting in 2014.
“There’s some pretty lofty rhetoric, some pretty ambitious bills, and in some ways, there’s even a big gap between the rhetoric and what bills are proposed,” Lopez, who is now a professor at Georgetown University, told CNN.
She cited Minnesota — where George Floyd died — as an example, noting “there’s a big difference between what was initially proposed and what’s happening now.”
Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz called a special legislative session in June to tackle police reform, but Democrats and Republicans couldn’t come to an agreement on almost two dozen proposed measures.
Weeks of private talks later, legislation was passed with elements from both sides.
A slew of legislation introduced across the country
There have been a slew of bills introduced — and some have been enacted — in states around the country since George Floyd’s death in late May.
The Policing Project at New York University School of Law published a survey in August that identified 432 pieces of legislation introduced between May 25, the day of Floyd’s death, and August 21.
The “vast majority were drafted at either the state (341) or municipal (59) level,” the researchers wrote. At the federal level, 32 bills have been introduced, according to the Policing Project, but none have passed and aren’t likely to, given the bipartisan gridlock in Congress.
The House of Representatives has passed one of them, named in honor of George Floyd, but largely along party lines.
The bill has provisions to overhaul qualified immunity for law enforcement, prohibitions on racial profiling on the part of law enforcement and a ban on no-knock warrants in federal drug cases.
It would ban chokeholds at the federal level and classify them as a civil rights violation, and would establish a national registry of police misconduct maintained by the Department of Justice.
“I think the bill that passed the House is the right thing to do,” Harris said. “It contains many of the best measures out there that make all kinds of common sense and is what people, generally speaking, say they want, but it won’t go anywhere because of the presidential and other election campaigns happening right now. And particularly because the President has made pushing back against any law enforcement reform a kind of keynote or keystone of his campaign.”
At the state level, Lopez pointed out that legislatures around the country are just coming back into session, and some processes have been put in place “in a number of different states and localities.”
“We’ll just have to see,” she said. “They just haven’t been given time to play out.”
Policing experts say they are encouraged by the activity at the city level.
“Of the 59 municipal bills introduced in the date range we examined, 41 have passed into law. State-level policy change is happening more slowly: Of the 341 pieces of state-level legislation we identified, only 25 have officially been signed into law,” the Policing Project researchers wrote.
Looking at the 50 largest cities by population, Sam Walker, a professor at University of Nebraska Omaha’s School of Criminology and Criminal Justice, found that 42, or 84% “have taken some action.”
“That’s an incredible upsurge of reform activity,” Walker said.
At least 20 US cities and municipalities are starting to ban or have banned the use of choke holds, according to a CNN tally, including Philadelphia, Phoenix, Los Angeles, Sacramento, San Diego, Miami, Chicago, Washington, DC, Minneapolis, New York City, Denver and Houston.
It’s not over in California
As for California, that bill isn’t dead, Sen. Bradford said.
“We’re going to bring the bill back, we’ve already started mobilizing and we have tremendous grassroots support. We have tremendous support from the sports and entertainment world.”
The push for reform also isn’t going to fade away, with bystander cell phone videos and police body cameras that document incidents of police using excessive force fueling the protests around the country, observers said.
“This can’t be a moment, it has to be a movement,” Sen. Bradford said, reciting a long list of Black American victims of police brutality. “Example after example after example.”
Even so, change won’t happen overnight, experts said.
When states fail to pass these kinds of laws, “what this tells us is that this is a long-term struggle with a powerful counter force,” according to Harris.
And if that force can counter meaningful change in California, “they can do it anywhere.”
“I’m not saying any of this is impossible. It is not. Its time has come,” Harris said. “But it’s going to take a longer and more sustained push than I think people might have expected.”
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