Seattle police at a protest. (Photo: Jason Rantz)
Washington state is no stranger to calls for police reforms.
It’s what was behind the years-long effort that culminated in 2019 with voters overwhelmingly approving I-940, Washington’s new police accountability law that, among other things, required more training for officers and fully independent investigations in use of force cases.
When it was passed, it was largely hailed a victory for families of those killed by police. But when the law took effect, it was clear something was missing: Someone to ensure police agencies were actually following the new rules. As it turns out some were not, such as the Pierce County Sheriff’s Department which, despite having had a deputy at the scene of the Tacoma Police Department’s in custody killing of Manny Ellis last year, still took on the “independent investigation” – which is not allowed under I-940.
Ellis’ death, and the police killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and others this past year sparked a national outcry, sustained protests, and fresh demands for police reforms, transparency, and accountability.
Here is Washington, many of those calls appear close to being answered, with state lawmakers poised to send a series of bills to the governor in a year that saw police accountability elevated to a top priority in Olympia.
In the past week, action have been taken on a series of these proposals, including Democratic Rep. Jesse Johnson’s HB 1054 limiting police tactics.
Aimed at preventing things like the deaths of Floyd and Taylor, the bill bans chokeholds and neck restraints, as well as no knock warrants. It also limits police use of tear gas, police pursuits, — including when officers can fire on moving vehicles — and prohibits law enforcement from acquiring certain military equipment.
Originally the bill would have prevented the use of K9s to chase down suspects because of the association that has to slavery, and concerns about dog bites. But, Johnson and others agreed to form a work group that will study the issue and come up with a model policy for canine teams.
“I’m just really proud of the process, because I really believe equity is in the process, not just the outcome, but the lifting up every voice in the process, and I think we did that,” Johnson said following the Tuesday vote.
“I am just excited about the historic vote, it’s going to change lives, it’s going to positively impact community, and I believe it will make community more safe, and our police officers have better relationships, because they’ll be using tactics that are more acceptable in our communities, especially communities of color,” Johnson added.
Republicans were less enthused.
“Why in the world would anyone want to be a police officer? Under the circumstances we are leaving them, the only choice is to escalate their response,” said Republican Senator Peter King during the debate ahead of the vote.
The bill passed in a 27-22 vote with Sen. Keith Wagoner the lone Republican in the yes column.
In the House, lawmakers also approved a bill requiring that officers act immediately if they witness another officer engaged in what they believe to be excessive force, not just stand around and watch.
The bill creates a duty for officers to intervene, and also requires they report any other misconduct of to that officer’s supervisor or department.
“That is how we stay in touch with the humanity of real people, real human lives that are just thrown away,” Johnson said prior to the final vote. “Like we all saw on camera with the four officers that stood and watched the public murder of George Floyd, why is it that everyone in that video saw that humanity in that man except for those four officers that simply stood and watched? That is a deep rooted problem in our system and in our culture, and we cannot fool ourselves into believing that was just a bad apple.”
That bill had more Republican support with the final vote 71-27, but it was not universal.
“We have to think about the people in our communities that are going to be affected by this when officers are afraid to do their job,” said Republican Rep. Jenny Graham.
“We can’t make these agents respond with certainty on a foundation of uncertainty,” argued Republican Rep. Jim Walsh.
Back in the Senate, there was significant action that will have a major impact on policing should it become law. Collectively known as the de-certification bill, SB 5051 is seen as the teeth of the police accountability agenda.
“This legislation establishes a much stronger state authority to hold police officers accountable for egregious misconduct and patterns of repeated misconduct,” explained Democratic Rep. Roger Goodman.
The bill would mandate de-certification of an officer, which is essentially like taking a way a cop’s license to be a cop, for certain things such as excessive use of force. It also creates a tiered system for lesser bad behavior that could eventually tally up enough to force de-certification, while also requiring intensive new background checks before an agency hires an officer.
De-certification decisions would be up to a panel at the Criminal Justice Training Commission that would now be larger and more civilian heavy than before, a big concern for Republicans opposed to the bill.
“Washington state law enforcement officers are doing a good job, and to hold them at a standard that we don’t even hold high profile elected officials is not acceptable,” said Rep. Rep. Brad Klippert ahead of the 57-43 vote in the House.
Late Friday, on 27-22 vote, the state senate approved HB 1267, which would create the new Office of Independent Investigation within the governor’s office to handle investigations of police use of force cases.
“There are some terrible stories, some tragic, tragic stories,” Democratic Senator Jaime Pedersen explained on the floor as he spoke about hearing from the families of those killed by police.
“And the folks who brought those stories into us petitioning their government for redress of their grievances, at the top of their list was the desire to have a truly independent office investigating deadly force incidents. This is the number one priority of the folks who came together looking for police accountability this session,” added Pedersen, who pushed back on a series of Republican amendments from those opposed to the shift.
Among the big concerns was ensuring that the training for those hired by the office does not include what Republicans called anti-American propaganda such as “The 1619 Project” or Critical Race Theory.
Democratic Senator Bob Haswegawa took issue with amendments from Senator Doug Eriksen likening the premise to a similar amendment passed in Washington during the McCarthy era, that he said ended up destroying countless lives.
The larger concern was about this new office being contained within the governor’s office.
“To have it in a political office regardless of who the governor is, there’s going to be political pressures,” argued Republican Senator Mike Padden.
“There’s implicit distrust because of this,” added Republican Senator Jeff Holy.
These bills all passed with amendments, so they’ll return to their house of origin for concurrence votes before heading to Governor Inslee for a final signature.