Politics & Government

Initiative reforming legal standard for police who kill likely headed to Legislature

Supporters of an initiative to lower the bar for prosecuting police who kill in the line of duty turned in more than 350,000 signatures to the state on Thursday, likely sending the measure to the Legislature for the 2018 session.

The signature drop represents a win for those trying to reform Washington’s unique legal standard that often shields from criminal charges police who use deadly force recklessly or negligently.

Efforts to change the law in the last two years have been unsuccessful at the Legislature. Some police groups and lawmakers say the current legal protections are necessary to keep law enforcement safe and prevent officers from facing jail time for making honest mistakes in dangerous situations.

Supporters of Initiative 940 say the measure is needed to limit fatal shootings by police and to hold officers accountable when they use deadly force in an unjustifiable way.

If I-940 qualifies, lawmakers have three options. They can approve I-940 as is. They can pass an alternative to compete with the initiative on the fall 2018 ballot. Or they can do nothing, sending the measure to the ballot by itself.

Leaders from the measure’s campaign, De-Escalate Washington, hailed Thursday’s signature turn-in as a large step toward their initiative becoming law.

Lisa Earl, mother of Jacqueline Salyers, who was fatally shot by Tacoma police in 2016, spoke to a crowd of supporters after they marched Thursday morning from United Churches of Olympia to an office of the Secretary of State to hand over the signed petitions.

Police fatally shot Salyers as she drove toward a police officer, according to Tacoma police. Officer Scott Campbell, who shot Salyers, was not charged after Pierce County prosecutor said the Campbell was acting in self-defense and in good faith.

“I don’t believe she was hostile,” Earl told the crowd about Salyers, who was a Puyallup tribal member. “I don’t believe (the police) version. I never will. And I will fight until this is done.”

The initiative needs roughly 260,000 valid signatures for the Legislature to consider it. The Secretary of State’s office said signatures will be fully counted by Jan. 15.

In Washington, current law requires proof an officer acted with “malice” and without “good faith” before they can be convicted of criminal charges for using deadly force.

The “malice” standard is unique in the country, and prosecutors say it blocks them from charging officers with anything less than murder for using deadly force. That’s because malice is an element of murder but not of lesser crimes such as manslaughter.

All of the state’s county prosecutors say they want legal options to charge officers when it can be proven they killed someone in a reckless or negligent manner.

How exactly to change the state’s law has been a topic of much debate. County prosecutors have angled to keep “good faith” in the law, defining as whether a reasonable officer would have used deadly force in the same circumstances.

Prosecutors say similar standards exist in other states and would keep some protections for law enforcement.

That proposal likely would not have resulted in criminal charges against police officers in some of the most controversial police shootings in recent years.

Reform groups saw that as a sign the measure didn’t go far enough in changing the deadly force standard. I-940 would delete the malice clause and create a two-part test to determine if the use of deadly force was justified.

In the county attorneys’ proposal, an officer only could be convicted if there is proof he or she acted outside the bounds of training and used deadly force without good faith. In I-940, if an officer fails either of those categories, they would be guilty of an unjustifiable killing.

The initiative also would create new requirements for officers to provide first aid and receive de-escalation and mental health-related training, among other changes to the criminal-justice system.

Frontline police groups have said any change is too far. A new legal standard could make an officer hesitate in dangerous situations, putting their life at risk, say opponents of the proposed changes.

The Fraternal Order of Police contends it also could lead to charges against officers for making honest mistakes.

“This is not a good thing for the community, this is not a good thing for law enforcement,” Trevor Severance, a spokesman for the Fraternal Order, said Thursday.

I-940 has benefited from more than $1 million dollars in donations, including at least $350,000 from the Puyallup Tribe of Indians, according to campaign officials.

Walker Orenstein: 360-786-1826, @walkerorenstein