When an effort by state lawmakers to make prosecuting police for improper use of deadly force easier stalled last year, legislators compromised.
They agreed to let a task force study the issue and recommend policy to next year’s Legislature on how to reduce violent interactions involving law enforcement.
But some on the state-appointed committee, which had its second meeting Tuesday, say lawmakers overseeing the panel are filibustering even a dialogue about changing controversial state law regulating police use of deadly force.
Amending state statute on the subject was a key component of reform-advocates’ demands that spurred the task force. It’s also the subject of a proposed initiative to the Legislature that would amend the law if enacted.
Washington’s law is regarded as unique in the country. Convicting an officer for using deadly force requires proof the officer acted with “malice.” It’s a standard many, including the American Civil Liberties Union, have said is more or less impossible to meet, effectively giving police immunity when they use deadly force.
Some committee members say changing the law would reduce police use of deadly force, a stated end-goal of the task force.
Others on the panel have pushed back, saying changing the statute won’t help that cause.
The split could derail what Karen Johnson, chairwoman of the Black Alliance of Thurston County, described as a “golden opportunity” to be a “national model” for discourse between law enforcement and police reform advocates.
‘SENSE OF RESPONSIBILITY’
De’Sean Quinn, a member of the state’s African American Commission on the task force, said he wants the group to be “action oriented.”
Real action for him might include recommending the state collect data on police use of force to easier analyze how to reduce it, he said.
But the key aim, he said, is to reach consensus on how to change Washington’s malice law, particularly in light of the recent police killings of Philando Castile in Minnesota and Alton Sterling in Louisiana.
“I feel a sense of responsibility for my kids that we really try and address this issue,” Quinn, who has two sons, said in an interview.
Gerald Hankerson, a member of the committee and president of the NAACP of Alaska, Oregon and Washington, said lawmakers and some law enforcement officials on the panel have been hesitant to broach the topic in seriousness. Others on the task force agree.
Tuesday’s meeting centered mostly on law enforcement training. Toshiko Hasegawa, appointed to the task force as a member of the state’s Asian American Commission, called out lawmakers during committee session, saying they were avoiding a deeper discussion on changing the law by “hiding behind procedure.”
She added in a later phone interview that committee co-chairman Sen. Kirk Pearson, R-Monroe, was deliberately avoiding the topic.
“Why is the police task force on deadly force not discussing deadly force?” Hasegawa asked.
The task force is required to meet only four times. Johnson, Quinn, Hasegawa and others signed a letter sent to Pearson and co-chairman Rep. Roger Goodman, D-Kirkland, before Tuesday’s meeting, asking for clearer guidelines on discussing the malice statute and more input on meeting agendas.
Quinn said he felt work on the statute was being ducked, and said the Legislature is not responding fast enough to outcries for police reform in the country.
“It’s not OK to not deal with the difficult issues,” he said.
Although the Legislature is not obligated to act on task force recommendations, “consensus with law enforcement” on legal changes “would be significant for the Legislature going forward,” said Sen. David Frockt, D-Seattle.
Rather than building consensus, the meetings so far have “almost been like it’s a dog and pony show,” Hankerson said.
‘NOT THE FIRST THING ON MY MIND’
Rep. Dave Hayes, R-Camano Island, is a sergeant with the Snohomish County Sheriff’s Office and one of four legislators on the panel.
He said the task force should look at all sorts of avenues to reduce violent interactions involving police, and said changing Washington’s malice standard is “definitely not the first thing on my mind.”
Added Hayes: “I don’t believe that changing the statute is going to fix anything.”
He said he expects the result of the task force to be “a couple bills regarding data collection and how we use that data to make our local law enforcement officers better.”
He cautioned the Legislature would have to weigh the cost of those bills to not place a burden on local law enforcement departments.
Pearson, who left before the conclusion of Tuesday’s meeting, did not return calls or messages from The News Tribune asking for comment.
On Tuesday, he said reviewing past applications of the malice statute is “beyond” what the committee was designed to do.
Goodman said at the meeting the task force needs to learn more about perspectives of law enforcement officers, their training, and about data collection, and not just work on the malice statute.
“We can’t be sort of rushing to focus on one aspect — one very important aspect and that is perception of flaws in the law — but we need to sit back and continue to listen,” he said during the committee meeting.
Sue Rahr, the executive director of the Criminal Justice Training Commission, said at the meeting that prosecuting officers for improper use of deadly force “isn’t enough” to reduce violent encounters with law enforcement. Police officers in Washington train at Rahr’s organization with the exception of the Washington State Patrol. Rahr is on the task force.
“If the task force does change the law, that’s only going to solve one piece of the problem,” she said. “The problem is much bigger and much more complex than that.”
Johnson and others have tried to soothe brewing discontent in the group.
She reminded task force members there would be more meetings, and that they can schedule more than four if needed. Goodman promised a more collaborative approach to setting new meeting agendas.
A minority report can be filed if task force members don’t agree with the final group report to the Legislature.
Frockt said Monday that he was looking at the malice law “very seriously,” and feels “ a deep sense of obligation and gravity surrounding this given what’s happening around the country.”
“There are people who are going to be clearly disappointed if we don’t make some changes in some Washington law,” he added. “I hope that this is not the situation where the task force goes through, does a lot of work and nothing really happens with it.”
Quinn said he’s still optimistic that thorough work on the malice statute will come.
But, he said, “there needs to be a demonstration that we need to address these issues.”
Walker Orenstein: 360-786-1826