Washington has the nation’s most restrictive law for charging officers with unlawful use of deadly force. The Legislature should make a reasonable change to the standard and avoid a bitter initiative campaign.
CHARGING a police officer for using deadly force should be a very rare event, because society needs smart, well-trained officers to exercise good judgment in terrible situations.
But it should not be a never event, because those same officers must not be above the law they enforce.
Washington has set the bar too high for charging officers. A recent Seattle Times investigation, “Shielded by the law,” found this state had the most prohibitive standard in the nation.
No Washington state officer has been convicted under that restrictive law in more than a decade, a span that covers at least 213 fatal encounters with police. Even in the most questionable incidents, such as the shooting of First Nations woodcarver John T. Williams, officers haven’t been charged, let alone convicted.
A task force of law enforcement, lawmakers and community activists studied the issue for much of last year. The Legislature now needs to act on their proposals.
If lawmakers don’t, the issue will most likely be sent to voters in the form of an initiative, and that campaign would be divisive and bitter.
At issue are three words in the current law. To charge an officer with unlawful use of deadly force, a prosecutor has to show the cop acted with “malice” — that the officer acted with evil intent — and a lack of “good faith” — which gets at an officer’s judgment and training.
Community activists on the task force wanted both terms removed, significantly lowering the bar for charging officers. Police groups wanted neither, preserving the status quo. The Washington Council of Police & Sheriffs, in a statement, said removing malice or good faith “is a distraction that fails to reduce violent interactions between law enforcement and the public.”
Both sides need to compromise. Sen. David Frockt, D-Seattle, has worked diligently to find the middle ground. The Washington Association of Prosecuting Attorneys has shown strong leadership, endorsing a change in state law that gets rid of having to prove “malice” but defines how a reasonable officer would use force.
That approach would put Washington in line with states like Arizona, Colorado, Connecticut, Florida and New York. Those states protect officers from criminal liability for using deadly force if the officers “reasonably believe” it is necessary to protect themselves or another person.
A brokered compromise should also respond to officers’ legitimate concerns about the need for more training and funding for less-lethal weapons.
Changing the state law won’t result in many more prosecutions of police officers, because the truly questionable cases are rare. Nationwide, just 15 officers have been convicted in state courts over the past decade for unlawful use of deadly force. But making the change will address legitimate concerns by the public about accountability for officers who act recklessly.