Society expects officers to run toward danger and to be able to hold them accountable. Guest columnist Sue Rahr writes about a task force’s recommendations to the Legislature.
The tragic shooting death of a Tacoma police officer is a stark reminder of how high the stakes are when our police officers run toward the danger in order to protect us.
While we expect protection, we also expect accountability for the actions taken under these very difficult circumstances. That accountability is key to building public trust.
The Joint Legislative Task Force on the Use of Deadly Force in Community Policing has been grappling with this difficult dilemma for several months and released its final report just hours before Officer Reginald “Jake” Gutierrez died Wednesday. A witness told police he was protecting his partner and a bystander during a call to a residence.
I believe that building public trust in law enforcement and keeping both cops and community members safe is possible if we are thoughtful, strategic and work together.
The task force provided a forum to begin important discussions about finding ways to do that. As a member, I found the kind of thoughtful, deliberative debate and holistic approach to public safety that has positioned our state as a national leader in police training and practices. The 26-member task force included representatives not only from law enforcement, but also from multiple ethnic communities, prosecutors, public defenders and community activists.
During deliberations, members with sharply differing perspectives listened to points of view at odds with their own. I cannot overstate how starkly this process showed that most task-force members, on all sides of the issue, took positions based on deeply held beliefs rooted more in perceptions rather than data — which is part of our human nature. This is why a deliberative legislative process is so important when creating or changing state law, especially around such an emotionally charged issue.
Like democracy, the process was messy and difficult.
Despite a rough start, and after much listening and debating, task-force members eventually found some common ground and areas that we could agree to work on together.
We all agreed that we needed consistent and comparable data about police use of force. Many members also acknowledged that we unrealistically expect police officers with five months of training to successfully resolve violent confrontations when highly trained specialists with community and government institutions have failed to address the chronic mental illness and substance-abuse issues that often underlie these confrontations.
Therefore, we reached general agreement that quality training, particularly focused on de-escalation and dealing with people in a mental-health crisis, was critical in reducing deadly encounters and should be supported by the Legislature.
Where we struggled the most was wrestling with the language in the deadly-force statute, RCW 9A.16.040(3), which currently reads, “A public officer or peace officer shall not be held criminally liable for using deadly force without malice and with a good faith belief that such act is justifiable pursuant to this section …”
A slight majority of the task force agreed that the phrase “without malice” is not necessary to protect officers who make reasonable mistakes when using deadly force.
Most members acknowledged that if we ask officers to run toward danger we owe them more latitude if they make reasonable mistakes than we would allow a civilian who has the option of running away.
So the recommendation to the Legislature also states that an officer will not be held criminally liable “If a reasonable officer would have believed the use of deadly force was necessary in light of all the facts and circumstances known to the officer at the time.”
The task-force report provides lawmakers with valuable information and guidance for the session beginning in January. Meeting just four times was not enough for the task force to reach unanimous agreement on the final language of the statute. That will require the full legislative process.
But it was sufficient time for us to recognize and recommend that changing the law and eliminating “malice” and “good faith,” as recommended in a citizen’s initiative now collecting signatures, is not enough.
Rather, the task-force discussions revealed that greater support for quality police training, data gathering and analysis, and better mental-health services are also critically important to reduce deadly encounters between police and community members.