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Rep. William Lacy Clay

Congressman William Lacy Clay, D-University City, listens to speakers at an event in St. Louis on Monday, April 1, 2019. Photo by David Carson, dcarson@post-dispatch.com

BERKELEY — Federal law enforcement officers could use deadly force only as a last resort to prevent imminent death or serious injury under a bill to be introduced by Rep. William Lacy Clay of University City and some other House Democrats.

The measure also would require state and local governments to pass similar standards for their police agencies or face a cutoff of federal law enforcement aid.

“This new act ... changes the way that communities are policed,” Clay said Friday at a news conference at the Renaissance St. Louis Airport Hotel. “Today we continue to strive towards making our country a more perfect union where black lives are respected and valued.”

The measure, he said, would encourage police to use alternative methods of dealing with suspects and de-escalating potentially dangerous situations.

Clay was joined by a fellow sponsor of the bill, Rep. Ro Khanna, D-Calif., at the announcement, held on the fifth anniversary of the fatal shooting of Michael Brown by a Ferguson police officer.

Clay said “Ferguson was a dramatic symptom of an illness that is prevalent across our nation” in which some officers “hired to protect and serve essentially terrorize our communities.”

Police generally “use care” when encountering the public, Clay said. He said most officers “could get behind this legislation because they know there are a few in their ranks that may be reckless ... in regard to life.”

Khanna predicted that adopting the standard would reduce violence “and lead to less incidents not just for the victims but also for the police officers.”

The U.S. Justice Department concluded in an investigation that it was reasonable for Ferguson Officer Darren Wilson to be afraid of Brown in their encounter and thus Wilson could not be prosecuted for fatally shooting the unarmed 18-year-old.

Clay said, however, that he believed that the Brown-Wilson confrontation “could have been defused in another way.”

More than 20 other House members have signed onto the bill. The bill is called the PEACE Act, short for Police Exercising Absolute Care With Everyone. According to a Khanna news release, force under the bill would be a last resort rather than a first resort.

The release said the measure also has picked up support from the NAACP, the American Civil Liberties Union, Amnesty International and the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights.

Peter Joy, a law professor at Washington University, said court rulings have held that police officers in reasonable fear of their life and safety are permitted to use whatever force they deem necessary. That legal standard generally is followed by police agencies now, he said.

“They don’t have to make a judgment (such as) will a stun gun be sufficient,” he said. The proposal unveiled Friday would change that, he said.

St. Louis County police are allowed to use deadly force to protect themselves or others from what is reasonably believed to be an imminent threat of death or serious injury. There is no reference to such action being the last resort.

St. Louis police rules refer to deadly force being “a last resort” when “all reasonable alternatives have been exhausted or appear impractical” in safeguarding the lives of officers or others.

But because of legal precedents, Joy said, as a practical matter St. Louis officers appear to be justified to use as much force as reasonably necessary to remove a threat to the officer or others.

Joy said he doubted the bill’s chances for passage, in part because of the stand-your-ground laws enacted in Missouri and some other states that allow average citizens to defend themselves against attacks.

He said if state and local governments adopted the standard envisioned in Clay’s bill, police “would have less options than citizens would have under stand-your-ground.”

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