An initiative to change Washington’s unique law that protects law enforcement officers who kill in the line of duty from criminal charges is in the pipeline.
Police reform advocates announced Monday they are gearing up for an initiative to the Legislature in response to legislative inaction on the deadly force law, according to Not This Time, a group founded after Che Taylor was fatally shot by Seattle police in 2016.
If the initiative gets enough signatures, it could run on the ballot in 2018, assuming legislators don’t change the statute first.
Lawmakers have been considering tweaks to the law this year. But they have yet to strike a deal that satisfies police groups that say any change could put officers at risk, and minority and civil rights groups that want a larger overhaul of the statute.
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“If legislators can’t get this done, we will go directly to the people to change the law,” Toshiko Hasegawa, who sat on a state task force studying the law last fall, said in a statement.
To convict an officer of a crime for using deadly force, Washington’s law requires prosecutors to show the officer acted with “malice” and without “good faith.”
The malice standard is unique in the country. Prosecutors say it is unnecessarily high and blocks them from charging officers with manslaughter for recklessly or negligently killing people while on the job. That’s because malice, or evil intent, is an element of murder, but not manslaughter.
Murder is the only charging option effectively available to prosecutors, they say.
Prosecutors wrote a bill to change the law and garnered some bipartisan support in the Legislature. Promoted by supporters as a middle ground, it would delete malice from the statute while retaining good faith, but defining it to ask what a reasonable officer would do in the same circumstances.
Frontline police groups are squeamish about any change, saying deleting malice might not give officers enough legal cover when they make honest mistakes.
Many from minority and civil rights groups worry that keeping good faith, even with a new definition, is just as difficult to prove in court as malice. They’re pushing for bigger changes.
The new initiative would remove malice and good faith and replace it with a reasonable officer standard, said Gabe Meyer, the advocacy director of Not This Time.
That approach seeks to rely more on professional standards than on the intent of an officer, according to Karen Johnson, chairwoman of the Black Alliance of Thurston County.
The task force narrowly recommended the same changes.
A similar initiative to the Legislature failed to get enough signatures in 2016.