Former deputy’s murder charge in San Diego County is first under state’s new use of force law

SAN DIEGO — When San Diego County Dist. Atty. Summer Stephan announced last month that former sheriff’s Deputy Aaron Russell would face a murder charge in the fatal shooting of a man in May, it wasn’t just the first time a law enforcement officer in the county had faced such a charge.

The Russell case also marks the first time a law enforcement officer has been charged in California under a new state law, which went into effect Jan.1, changing the legal standard that regulates when police can use deadly force.

As a result, Russell’s case — if it goes to trial — could be the first test of that new law, AB 392, that was authored by San Diego Assemblymember Shirley Weber, reported the Los Angeles Times.

Among other things, the law changes the standard for when police can use deadly force from when “reasonable” to when “necessary” to prevent imminent and serious injury or death.

Nicholas Bils was killed May 1 after he slipped out of a pair of handcuffs and escaped from a state park ranger’s car just outside the downtown San Diego Central Jail. The 36-year-old had been arrested earlier that day for allegedly threatening a ranger with a golf club at Old Town San Diego State Historic Park.

Prosecutors say Russell, a 23-year-old deputy assigned to work in the jail, fired five shots at Bils, who was unarmed and running away from Russell, a second deputy and two park rangers. In deciding to charge Russell, prosecutors noted that no other law enforcement officer had pulled a gun.

Stephan said the unprecedented decision to charge Russell with murder was a result of analyzing his actions under the new legal standard of AB 392.

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