California Gov. Gavin Newsom, a Democrat, has signed two bills into law that will limit who is eligible to become a peace officer, even as many cities across the Golden State struggle with police shortages. Critics say the new laws will create an “ideological purity test,” preventing some conservatives and Christians from joining already-strapped police forces.
Newsom on Sept. 30 signed AB 655, which bars Californians who previously had been members of a “hate group” or involved in “hate group activity” (in the past seven years) from police service. It remains unclear when the law will go into effect.
The governor also signed AB 2229, which requires applicants to be screened for “bias” before they can join a police force. The “bias” requirement had been enacted previously in 2020, but mistakenly was stricken from the law in 2021, according to a legislative analysis. According to the law’s text, it went into effect immediately upon signing.
Although AB 655 uses a strict definition for the term “hate group” tied directly to “genocide,” critics note that the new law also requires agencies to investigate “a complaint made by the public that alleges, as specified, that a peace officer engaged in membership in a hate group, participation in any hate group activity, or advocacy of public expressions of hate.”
The Southern Poverty Law Center, or SPLC, has branded mainstream conservative and Christian organizations as “hate groups” and put them on a list with the likes of the Ku Klux Klan, often for reasons that amount to ideological disagreement. (The SPLC did not respond to The Daily Signal’s request for comment.)
California has a public interest in preventing members of the Ku Klux Klan or other groups that truly advocate oppression and violence from joining a police department. But critics told The Daily Signal that the laws could be weaponized to exclude peaceful conservatives at a time of law enforcement shortages.
“California is in the throes of a public safety crisis,” Matt McReynolds, senior staff attorney at the Pacific Justice Institute’s (or PJI’s) Center for Public Policy, told The Daily Signal. “Mass shootings, mass release of criminals back onto the streets, and brazen smash-and-grab robberies have residents living in fear. Meanwhile, the level of politically-fueled disrespect for law enforcement has never been higher.”
McReynolds noted that police officers are fleeing the Golden State. “AB 2229,” he argued, “will only exacerbate this crisis by exposing all but the most ideologically pure officers to discipline, dismissal, or rejection for supposed bias.”
“It is the perfect Leftist tool for canceling more decent, brave and hardworking public safety officers,” he added. “In California, cancel culture is coming for our cops.”
As an aside, the SPLC brands the Pacific Justice Institute as an “anti-LGBT hate group,” a designation the institute disputes. PJI President Brad Dacus told The Daily Signal that the Southern Poverty Law Center twisted his previous statements out of context to smear him in this way.
“AB 2229 comprises a political test,” Daniel Greenfield, the Shillman journalism fellow at the David Horowitz Freedom Center (a conservative organization branded by the SPLC as an “anti-Muslim hate group”), told The Daily Signal.
“It is a blank check for viewpoint discrimination,” Greenfield said, “especially since it fails to identify parameters for defining bias in a time when, under the influence of critical race theory, it is widely held by the Left that all members of the majority group suffer from unconscious bias.”
“It’s entirely possible, furthermore, that membership in a biblically traditional church or synagogue would be considered a bias against sexual orientation,” he warned.
Brigitte Gabriel, a Lebanese-American activist and founder of SPLC-accused “hate group” ACT for America who warns against the threat of political Islamism, warned that AB 2229 “will become an ideological purity test preventing conservatives and Christians from being eligible for service as peace officers due to their belief on issues like marriage sexuality or gender.”
“We need more decent people signing up willing to serve the public and ensure public safety but with laws like these all they are doing is discouraging them from signing up putting the community at a far greater risk,” Gabriel told The Daily Signal.
California Assemblywoman Luz Rivas, a Democrat who sponsored AB 2229, did not respond to multiple requests for comment from The Daily Signal. The office of California Attorney General Rob Bonta, a Democrat, did not respond to The Daily Signal’s requests for comment on the previous and prospective implementation of AB 2229. Newsom’s office declined to comment on both bills, referring The Daily Signal to the legislators who sponsored them.
Critics also expressed worries about the weaponization of AB 655, and state legislators changed the bill from its original version to address some of those concerns.
William T. Armaline, associate professor of sociology at San Jose State University and director of the university’s Human Rights Collaborative, which sponsored the bill, told The Daily Signal that “in the two-year legislative path of this bill we met with all organizations who expressed concerns.”
Armaline described those meetings as “productive” and said they “resulted in the current language of the bill, precisely out of a deliberate effort to protect civil liberties and collective bargaining rights.”
He noted that “the bill does not apply the SPLC’s framework,” but rather grounds its language in “state/constitutional/international legal conceptualizations of, for instance, ‘hate crimes’ or ‘genocide.'”
The new California law defines a “hate group” as “An organization that supports, advocates for, threatens, or practices genocide or the commission of hate crimes.” The law defines “genocide” as follows:
‘Genocide’ means any of the following acts committed with specific intent to destroy, in whole or substantially in part, a national, ethnic, racial, or religious group through means including killing or causing serious bodily injury to members of the group, causing permanent impairment of the mental faculties of members of the group through drugs, torture, or similar means, subjecting the group to conditions of life that are intended to cause the physical destruction of the group, in whole or in part, imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group, or forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.
Armaline said “there are many historical and current organizations, including but not limited to the Ku Klux Klan in California and the U.S., that would arguably meet this description.” He noted, however, that “there is no stated blacklist.”
The Pacific Justice Institute “is one of the organizations we communicated with in early revisions of the Bill, and the final bill language reflects our effort to address these concerns to their apparent satisfaction,” he said.
“We’re gratified that our constitutional concerns with AB 655 were taken seriously, and the threat it originally posed to law enforcement officers was substantially reduced in the amended version,” Pacific Justice Institute’s McReynolds told The Daily Signal.
McReynolds noted that the original version of the legislation defined a “hate group” as any group that “supports, advocates for, or practices the denial of constitutional rights” of a class of people, a definition that easily could be twisted to apply to pro-life organizations seeking to outlaw abortion.
Although the final version of AB 655 represented an improvement, McReynolds spoke on behalf of PJI noting, “We remain opposed to this and similar legislation because they build on a flawed premise that inexorably leads to thought crimes. As the original version of AB 655 reveals, our far-left legislators will not be satisfied until they silence, de-platform and even criminalize conservatives.”
Greenfield also called AB 655 “deeply disturbing,” saying it “allows public complaints, likely by partisan groups, targeting peace officers over their views and continues to centralize state control over law enforcement. It makes those complaints public to further target them.”
“The bill has the state defining what is hate and how to investigate it,” Greenfield added. “While the bill currently focuses on promotion of genocide and hate crimes, it would be easy for the actual implementation and later ‘reforms’ to define it more broadly. The experts likely to be tasked to draw up such standards are prone to be associated with the SPLC and other partisan organizations that can take the opportunity to use their power for partisan going.”
“With the standards of evidence unclear, it will become all too easy to pressure sheriff’s departments and more conservative areas to purge personnel,” Greenfield concluded.
Gabriel also sounded the alarm over AB 655.
“The fear is that this bill, in the way it is written, could be broadly interpreted to include peaceful organizations who are put on the Southern Poverty Law Center hate list, who have nothing to do with hate simply because they share a different political view than the SPLC,” she told The Daily Signal. “We have already seen government agencies use the SPLC hate list as a guide. We are entering a very dangerous time in our country.”
Gabriel also said that law enforcement officers have “had to distance themselves from us out of fear of being fired or disciplined,” in part due to the SPLC’s accusations.
Assemblyman Ash Kalra, a Democrat who sponsored AB 655, declined to comment to The Daily Signal.
Brian Levin, director of the Center for the Study of Hate & Extremism at California State University, San Bernardino and a former New York police officer, told The Daily Signal that the definitions in the new law are narrow enough to alleviate these concerns.
Levin cited examples of police officers tied to extremist groups, such as a Massachusetts officer who attended the 2017 “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia; a California sheriff who used to be a member of the far-right militia group Oath Keepers (members of which face charges of seditious conspiracy for their roles in the Jan. 6 Capitol riot); and an Anti-Defamation League Center on Extremism report claiming to identify 373 members of Oath Keepers who currently served in law enforcement.
Daniel Villasenior, a spokesman for the governor, sent The Daily Signal a statement after publication.
“The statute is clear – only officers actively involved in hate groups or who express bias against persons of a particular race or ethnicity, gender, nationality, religion, disability, or sexual orientation would be impacted,” Villasenior said. “These laws are designed to make everyone safer and ensure that we aren’t employing officers who support or advocate for genocide or the commission of hate crimes. If someone is concerned about how these laws will affect them, they need to look in the mirror.”
Major California cities are suffering from police shortages. Los Angeles Police Chief Michel Moore told Fox 11 News: “In the last three years, this organization has lost more than 600 personnel to retirement and we didn’t hire new academy recruits to replace them. Today, we’re losing more than 50 [officers] per month to retirement and we need to hire 60 in order to meet that attrition and begin to rebuild, and we’re simply not making that mark.”
San Francisco Police Chief Bill Scott told ABC 7 News that when about 50 veteran officers left his department in September, only eight to- 10 recruits took their places. Scott said the city is down about 300 officers.
Earlier this month, Sacramento Police Chief Kathy Lester told ABC 10 that her department is authorized for 769 employees, but has only 684—leaving the department 85 short.
The California Fraternal Order of Police did not respond to multiple requests for comment from The Daily Signal.
Editor’s Note: This article has been updated to include a statement from the governor’s spokesman.
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