Politics & Government

Influential police group signs on to ‘middle ground’ change to state’s deadly force law

Seattle Seahawks NFL football wide receiver Doug Baldwin talks to reporters Monday, Nov. 21, 2016, after he testified at a joint legislative task force on the use of deadly force in community policing at the Capitol in Olympia, Wash. Baldwin, whose father was a police officer, has been outspoken on the issues of police training, racial profiling, and the use of force by law enforcement officers. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)
Seattle Seahawks NFL football wide receiver Doug Baldwin talks to reporters Monday, Nov. 21, 2016, after he testified at a joint legislative task force on the use of deadly force in community policing at the Capitol in Olympia, Wash. Baldwin, whose father was a police officer, has been outspoken on the issues of police training, racial profiling, and the use of force by law enforcement officers. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren) AP

A high-powered law enforcement organization in Washington is now supporting a bill that would change the state’s unique law protecting police who kill in the line of duty.

The Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs have long opposed altering the law to make it easier to charge police with crimes for improperly using deadly force.

But an amendment that preserves a key part of the law — plus the promise of extra money for new training and gear — was enough to convince WASPC to sign on to Senate Bill 5073 Wednesday night, said the measure’s sponsor, state Sen. David Frockt.

The organization’s approval has already helped lend bipartisan support to the controversial measure, which many Republicans have opposed in solidarity with police groups. After WASPC signed on, the GOP-led Senate Law and Justice Committee advanced Frockt’s bill by a 5-2 vote Thursday.

“I wasn’t surprised but I’m very gratified,” Frockt, a Seattle Democrat, said by phone on Thursday. “I spoke with (WASPC) members last week and there’s a recognition that this approach that we’re taking is the right approach.”

Supporters cast the bill as a middle ground between a law enforcement community that prefers the status quo and minority groups that want to redo the law completely, but representatives of those minority groups don’t see it that way and caution that nothing would change under Frockt’s bill.

Washington’s law requires prosecutors to show an officer acted with “malice” and without “good faith” to convict them of a crime for using deadly force.

The standard, particularly the “malice” clause, is unique in the country. Prosecutors say the law gives officers immunity for acting recklessly or negligently as long as they lack evil intent.

Frockt’s bill would remove “malice” but keep “good faith” with an added definition. An officer could prove he acted in good faith if he can show that a reasonable officer would have used deadly force in the same circumstances.

The bill also calls for money for police training including de-escalation tactics, collection of data on when deadly force is used and distribution of less-lethal weapons such as Tasers.

A nonpartisan analysis estimated the law enforcement upgrades would cost $8.5 million a year — and the elimination of the malice standard would happen only if the Legislature approves that money.

That promise was pivotal for WASPC, said the organization’s executive director Mitch Barker. If the bill is not “legitimately funded, we would have no interest in it,” he said.

Barker said he doesn’t think changing the law will reduce violent interactions with police. But he said the organization wanted to improve relations with minority groups who say they’re unfairly targeted by law enforcement and have been fighting for a change in the law.

“We know it matters to them and we know it’s significant,” Barker said.

An analysis by the Seattle Times in 2015 found black people were disproportionately killed by police in Washington from 2005 to 2014.

A task force studied the law this summer and narrowly recommended that both “malice” and “good faith” be removed. That idea has won over some Democrats and task force members representing civil rights organizations.

Frockt initially proposed a bill patterned on the task force recommendation. His amended version to keep “good faith” but define it is a compromise based on a proposal first made by the Washington Association of Prosecuting Attorneys but rejected in the task force.

Prosecutors say keeping good faith helps protect honest mistakes by law enforcement while still letting them charge officers who improperly use deadly force.

Karen Johnson, chairwoman of the Black Alliance of Thurston County and a task force member, said proving an officer did not act in “good faith” — even if defined as in Frockt’s bill — is still as difficult to prove as “malice.”

She said she was disappointed to see the task force recommendations “totally disregarded.”

“Of course we’re not surprised that (WASPC) would support it because nothing changes,” Johnson said.

Republican state Sen. Mike Padden, who chairs the Law and Justice Committee, said the support from WASPC “certainly impacted my decision” to vote the bill out of committee.

“I was concerned about removing malice,” Padden said. He also acknowledged Washington state’s law is an outlier.

“The fact that 49 other states don’t have (the malice standard) and nobody came to me and gave me a case where it not being in there resulted in an unjust decision or an unjust prosecution played a little bit of a factor in my thinking,” he said.

The bill now heads to a fiscal committee.

Walker Orenstein: 360-786-1826, @walkerorenstein

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