Since the May 21, 2015, shooting of two young black men in west Olympia, discussions of race, law enforcement and the use of deadly force have drawn large crowds in Olympia.
A Wednesday hearing about the issue in the state House Public Safety Committee was no exception. More than 65 people signed up to testify during the hearing, filling all of the seats in the hearing room. Some were directed to overflow seating in another room.
The committee heard about three bills regarding use of deadly force by police officers, but a bill that would change the standard for prosecuting police officers in such cases generated the most discussion.
In Washington, police officers can’t be convicted of using unnecessary force unless a prosecutor can prove they acted with malice. House Bill 2907, introduced by Rep. Luis Moscoso, D-Mountlake Terrace, would remove that language.
The bill isto be voted on by the committee at 8 a.m. Friday. Most policy bills need to receive committee approval by Friday to advance in the 2016 legislative session.
Moscoso said he introduced the measure at the urging of the Black Alliance of Thurston County, a group that formed after the May shooting. Karen Johnson, co-founder and chair of the alliance, spoke in favor of the bill at the hearing.
“We see this as a righteous cause dealing with the sanctity of human lives,” Johnson said. “Not only the lives of the public, but the lives of the police officers.”
Representatives from Amnesty International, the American Civil Liberties Union and the Public Defender Association spoke in favor of the bill.
But support from the crowd wasn’t unanimous.
Tom McBride, of the Washington Association of Prosecuting Attorneys, said there’s a reason why private citizens and police officers are held to different standards when it comes to using deadly force. He said that as part of their jobs, police officers are expected to go toward dangerous situations, while private citizens aren’t.
“It doesn’t make sense to make it the same as (the standard) for any other citizen because it’s a different role,” McBride said.
If passed as written, the bill would remove the state’s authority to execute prisoners, McBride said.
Mitch Barker, of the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs, said the goal of the bill was clearly to prosecute more police officers. He said he couldn’t get behind that mission.
Instead, legislators should focus on decreasing the number of incidents in which officers believe that using deadly force is necessary, he said.
“We’re very interested in reducing these kinds of encounters,” Barker said.
While the bill was largely prompted by Olympia’s recent officer-involved shooting, the conversation about the need for the bill extended to other areas of Washington state. Speakers discussed the 2015 shooting of Antonio Zambrano-Montes in Pasco and the 2010 shooting of John T. Williams in Seattle. In both cases, no charges were filed against the officers.
Lisa Dugard, of the Public Defender Association, said Seattle police Officer Ian Birk, who shot Williams, should have been charged. If he couldn’t be charged, it’s unlikely any officer in Washington could be charged after using deadly force, she said.
Dugard said the bill would protect officers who make reasonable mistakes, while still holding accountable those who make egregious errors.
John T. Williams’ brother, Rick Williams, spoke during the hearing. He said that while he can’t bring back his brother, he can ask lawmakers to hold other police officers accountable.
“I can’t get my brother back, but I can help the people and stand up for them,” Rick Williams said.