More training reduces the likelihood of deadly force. Vote Yes on I-940

Initiative 940 requires law enforcement officers to receive training for violence de-escalation and mental health issues.
Initiative 940 requires law enforcement officers to receive training for violence de-escalation and mental health issues. toverman@theolympian.com

When Washingtonians think of law enforcement professionals, certain words should come to mind: trust, public servant, courage. And yes, even hero.

Tacoma Police Officer Reginald “Jake” Gutierrez and Pierce County Sheriff’s Deputy Daniel McCartney are prime examples. Both were killed in the line of duty in the last two years, protecting the public they vowed to serve.

Unfortunately, stories of good cops too often are eclipsed by reports of bad ones. Cell-phone cameras capture acts of misconduct and pictures blaze through social media, eroding police-community relations.

Washington Initiative 940 aims to restore these bonds by mandating more training and increasing accountability measures, such as an independent board to review officer-involved shootings. It deserves a “yes” from voters.

Washington has the U.S.’s lowest standard for making cops answerable for the inappropriate use of force, a fact made possible by one little word: malice. Malicious intent must be proven before any officer can be held criminally liable in an unjustified shooting.

I-940 throws out the “malice” clause but keeps the “good faith” language. It hews to a national standard of best practices and asks what a “reasonable” officer would have done in a similar situation.

It’s how a jury ultimately convicted a Chicago officer of second-degree murder this month. They didn’t have to determine frame of mind; they just had to believe that a reasonable officer wouldn’t have shot 17-year-old Laquan McDonald 16 times while he walked away from police.

De-escalation and mental health training are the fulcrum of I-940. Both are needed.

The average law enforcement professional in Washington typically receives just eight hours of this training before putting on the uniform for the first time. Another two hours of continuing education per year is required, but that hardly seems adequate considering the daily exposure that cops have to mental illness, drug abuse, homelessness and domestic violence.

Initiative opponents will tell you de-escalation training is already available. But it’s voluntary in most police departments, and the officers who could benefit most are likely the ones opting out.

It’s fair to wonder if tragedies like the shooting deaths of Charleena Lyles and Che Taylor in Seattle and Leonard Thomas in Fife would’ve had different outcomes had officers involved received more scenario-based training.

I-940 isn’t perfect. It requires that police officers receive first aid training and quickly render it to injured persons. Police agencies want assurance that securing a crime scene, chasing down bad guys and protecting the public will remain their first priority. The Legislature will need to clarify that part, as well as allocate funds to pay for the initiative’s mandates.

Whether it passes or fails, I-940 is a triumph of perseverance for a group of Washington residents calling themselves “De-Escalate Washington. “ Many of them lost family members in police shootings, which is why they drafted the initiative.

After it was delivered to lawmakers in the 2018 legislative session, it was amended with input from a diverse group of stakeholders including law enforcement. Both sides walked away reasonably satisfied with the compromise.

But legislators learned the hard way that process matters. Turns out, amending an initiative before voters are presented with it is a constitutional no-no. The State Supreme Court called foul and sent I-940 to the Nov. 6 ballot.

The fact that it’s almost impossible to criminally prosecute bad cops in Washington is one reason we’re known for being a “police friendly” state.

A positive result on I-940 would let us keep the “police-friendly” moniker but for a better reason: because we’ve strengthened public trust and equipped officers with more of the training their dangerous jobs require.