A stunning breakthrough on police use of force in Washington

Washington legislators this week narrowly avoided an election season standoff between cops and the people they’re sworn to protect.
Washington legislators this week narrowly avoided an election season standoff between cops and the people they’re sworn to protect. News Tribune file photo

In the last hours of a 60-day legislative session, Washington law enforcement officers sat in the state Senate gallery watching lawmakers give emotional speeches on a bill to draw a clearer line on police use of deadly force — a line that’s been fuzzy far too long.

The men and women in uniform were there to support legislation that makes it easier, not harder, for prosecutors to charge them with crimes of negligence or reckless use of force.

It was a climactic moment that no one could have predicted a year ago. Back then, front-line police unions opposed any change to Washington’s uniquely police-friendly law, warning it would be a threat to officers who make honest mistakes in split-second, dangerous confrontations.

The police presence on the last day of the 2018 session is testament to a turning of the tide that would not have happened without the fierce determination of community activists.

Even though their initiative won’t see the ballot, these citizens should be telling themselves: “Well done. Mission accomplished.”

Removing Washington’s controversial “malice” shield for cops was long overdue.

There’s no such thing as a perfect compromise, but perfection is never the goal in Olympia. Both the police and the public are ready for reform, and with it, a rethinking of law enforcement tactics and renewal of public trust.

House Bill 3003 covers all three. It passed by a wide margin in the House on Wednesday: 73 yes votes and 25 nos, with several Republicans crossing over. In the Senate, it found victory Thursday along narrow party lines: 25 Democrats supported it, 24 Republicans didn’t.

Washington is the only state in the U.S. with a “malice clause.” Because of it, no criminal action can follow an officer involved in a fatal shooting unless substantial proof of “evil intent” is found.

As of yet, there is no blood test that makes malice apparent. Most lawyers would confess it’s easier to climb a greased pole in your birthday suit than to prove in court that animus was the motive for a professional with a badge.

Between 2005 and 2014, 213 people were killed by police in Washington, yet only one officer was criminally charged, and he was acquitted by a jury.

Last July, a loose-knit activist group, De-Escalate Washington, started gathering signatures for Initiative 940. Group members, many of whom lost family members in police shootings, sought to change standards that made cops untouchable.

An intense debate centered on the extent to which race and bias factor into lethal police responses, both locally and nationally.

De-Escalate Washington rode momentum provided by NFL player protests and the Black Lives Matter movement. No doubt high-profile shootings such as last summer’s death of Charleena Lyles, the African American mother shot seven times by Seattle Police officers, were motivating forces.

Three days after Christmas, Lisa Earl, whose daughter Jacqueline Salyers was fatally shot by Tacoma police in 2016, delivered more than 350,000 signatures to the Secretary of State’s office. Salyers was a member of the Puyallup Tribe of Indians, which contributed $350,000 to the initiative.

The political will behind I-940 was a sure sign of a seismic shift.

Lawmakers had three traditional choices on how to proceed: They could take no action and let the initiative go directly to the November ballot without change; they could adopt I-940 in its entirety and let it become law; or they could change the language, put it next to the original initiative on the ballot and let voters decide between the two drafts.

They improvised a fourth alternative: Together with I-940 supporters and input from law enforcement, they decided to skip the ballot and directly amend the initiative, removing “malice” and redefining “good faith.”

The compromise also retains mandates for increased officer training in mental health, first aid and violence de-escalation.

Republican senators implored colleagues to vote no and let I-940 advance to voters this fall. They said not doing so is a snub to everyone who signed initiative petitions.

But voting yes on HB 3003 was the commendable thing to do. Initiatives are blunt instruments that should be reserved for when governments fail to act. Finally, Washington politicians did act.

Rather than risk an election season standoff between cops and the people they’re sworn to protect, we have a law that immediately begins to strengthen public trust in the brave caretakers of the thin blue line.

One of the bill’s co-sponsors, Rep. Roger Goodman, D-Kirkland, is right: Let’s not wait a moment longer to start the healing.