Washington’s task force studying how to reduce police shootings voted narrowly Monday to say it should be easier to criminally charge officers for reckless or negligent use of deadly force.
State law shields officers who improperly use deadly force from prosecution unless it can be proven they acted with “malice” and without “good faith.”
Led by task force members from organizations representing minorities, immigrants and people with disabilities, the committee supported getting rid of “malice” and “good faith” from the 1986 statute by a 14-10 margin.
An additional three members of the task force supported eliminating the highest bar to prosecution of police officers, the “malice” requirement, but they could not muster a majority to pass a recommendation to delete “malice” while leaving “good faith” in place.
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Snohomish County Prosecutor Mark Roe argued that keeping “good faith” would preserve some protections for police, but make it possible to charge officers for reckless or negligent use of deadly force.
The subjective “malice” standard is nearly impossible to meet, according to prosecutors and many in the legal community, because it requires proving how the officer was thinking or feeling when they used deadly force. It is unique in the country.
Supporters of removing “good faith” said they worry the clause could be just as subjective as “malice.”
The issue now goes to state lawmakers and the governor, who will have the final say on any legal change.
Though there was a majority in the group, many on the task force hoped to convince some members from law enforcement to support at least getting rid of the “malice” clause of the statute.
But despite impassioned pleas for police groups to back a legal change — including one from surprise guest Doug Baldwin, a wide receiver for the Seahawks — law enforcement representatives stood firm in saying they didn’t believe changing the law would have any positive effects.
Removing the “malice” clause wouldn’t reduce police shootings, said Travis Adams, from the Washington State Fraternal Order of Police.
Amending the statute could subject police to prosecution for making honest mistakes when using deadly force, law enforcement groups have said. It also might make police think twice in dangerous situations before moving to keep themselves safe.
Kerry Zieger, a Seattle police officer representing the Council of Metropolitan Police and Sheriffs, cited the five officers shot in the past few days — two of them fatally — in pushing to keep legal protections for law enforcement.
Adams said police groups are open to addressing community concerns surrounding police use of force, but “at this point in time we feel we need to have more conversations before we make concrete decisions.”
Others on the task force pushed back, saying officers wouldn’t be charged for making mistakes if the “malice” requirement was deleted from the statute.
Jorge L. Baron, from the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project, said changing the malice law would improve trust between police and the community, leading to fewer deadly encounters.
The committee did reach consensus on several other recommendations to the Legislature, including data collection on instances of deadly force aimed at better analyzing when and why officers use deadly force.
State Sen. David Frockt, D-Seattle, said he plans to sponsor legislation to drop the malice requirement when the legislative session begins in January.
Frockt, who voted to remove “malice” and “good faith,” said he thought compromise on the issue with law enforcement is possible in the future. He predicted agreement might center around keeping, yet defining, the good faith clause.
After the meeting, task force members said all factions on the committee had moved from their original positions, even if it wasn’t far enough to produce more unified recommendations.
“There may still be some lines in the sand, but clearly there is agreement that we need to do something around our statute and making sure that our police officers have what they need to do their job,” said Karen Johnson, director of the Black Alliance of Thurston County.