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Will the death of Charleena Lyles spur change to deadly-force law?

The shooting death of Charleena Lyles by Seattle police has prompted protests and re-energized efforts to change Washington’s deadly-force law.
The shooting death of Charleena Lyles by Seattle police has prompted protests and re-energized efforts to change Washington’s deadly-force law. AP

The June 18 fatal shooting of a 30-year-old woman by Seattle police has energized efforts to change Washington state’s deadly-force law.

Even before two Seattle Police officers killed Charleena Lyles, a proposed initiative was in the works to change the statute that makes it nearly impossible for prosecutors to charge officers who kill people.

Washington law states that an officer can’t be convicted of a crime for using deadly force if she or he acted in good faith and without malice, or what the law calls “evil intent.”

A group calling itself De-Escalate WA is expected soon to officially announce Initiative 940, according to a news release from the group. That proposal would change the statute’s language and establish statewide standards for officer training in de-escalation techniques and crisis intervention.

Meanwhile, two state lawmakers have launched a last-ditch attempt to find a legislative solution that could satisfy both law-enforcement groups and community advocates.

State Sen. David Frockt, D-Seattle, and Rep. Roger Goodman, D-Kirkland, are doubling down on attempts earlier this year to wrangle a compromise. Their work comes after a joint legislative task force in 2016 spent months trying to reach a solution on deadly-force laws and officer training.

Law-enforcement groups on that task force largely opposed changing the law’s language. Efforts at a compromise proposal stalled in Olympia earlier this year.

In the meantime, community groups might have run out of patience.

When asked about restarting talks for a legislative compromise, Karen Johnson, of the Black Alliance for Thurston County, said focus has shifted to the initiative.

“Because the politicians, prosecutors and police weren’t able to change the law, the people are going to take matters into their own hands,” said Johnson, who was a member of last year’s task force.

“I’ll never expect law enforcement to come around,” said Gerald Hankerson, head of the Seattle King County NAACP.

With an initiative looming, some law-enforcement groups are showing a new openness to remove the “malice” language in the law, according to Frockt.

“It’s clear to me that the initiative is putting pressure on some of the law-enforcement groups to reconsider” a compromise, Frockt said.

The developments could signal shifting ground in a debate that has sputtered along the past couple years. A different proposed initiative on the deadly-force law last year failed to make the ballot.

Throughout 2016, a task force made up of community-advocacy groups, legislators, law enforcement and prosecutors worked to find common ground.

In November, the task force voted on a series of recommendations on policing and deadly force. In that vote, 14 of the task force’s 26 members approved removing both the “malice” and “good faith” language from the law.

But most law-enforcement groups balked at changing the law and continued to oppose a compromise bill this year.

Frockt and Goodman now are working on new drafts of the legislation.

But after the shooting of Lyles, “The community groups are enraged,” Goodman said. “And also emboldened because of the support they’re receiving for the initiative effort.”

Lyles, a mother of four, was shot by two officers who responded to her call reporting an attempted burglary at her Magnuson Park apartment. Police said she displayed two knives before the officers opened fire.

I-940 would replace the current deadly-force language with a more detailed, multi-part threshold that examines what a “reasonable officer” might have done under the circumstances, and considers an officer’s intentions to determine if he or she acted in good faith.

If filed as an initiative to the Legislature, I-940 supporters would need to submit about 260,000 signatures by Dec. 29, according to the Secretary of State’s Office. It then would go to state lawmakers for the 2018 legislative session. Lawmakers could approve I-940, or deny it — in which case it would go on the 2018 ballot.

If legislators amended the proposal, both the original and amended version would go to voters.

The Washington Council of Police and Sheriffs, which testified against Frockt’s bill, SB 5073, did not respond last week to requests seeking comment.

The Council Of Metropolitan Police and Sheriffs, which also testified against Frockt’s compromise proposal, “has not changed its position about changing the use of force statute,” said Renee Maher, executive director.

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