The idea that deadly force should be used only as a last resort is not new. The difference is that it would be codified in the law, sending a message to the public and to law enforcement that there will be accountability when anyone is unjustifiably killed by police.
IN the opening days of the 2017 legislative session, our elected officials in Olympia have the opportunity to enact laws that embed our values of liberty, dignity and respect for all when it comes to safe community policing practices. Thanks to the work of a task force made up of legislators, members of law enforcement, Washington cities and counties, and Constitution and community advocates, the state House and Senate will consider bills that seek to increase trust and reduce violence between police and the people they are sworn to protect and serve.
Passing these bills would position Washington state to be a national leader, and a model to other states for protecting lives and meeting international human rights standards. We need courageous leadership this session to enact legislation that honors the noble role of law enforcement, reflects community values, fosters accountability and builds public trust. At a minimum, we need the law on the use of lethal force changed this session.
According to international standards championed by organizations such as Amnesty International, police can only use lethal force when there is no other alternative to avoiding imminent death or grievous injury. As it stands now, Washington state’s law allows for other instances that are unnecessary and place others at risk.
For example, current state law allows police to use deadly force to suppress a riot if any one of the participants is armed with a “deadly weapon,” potentially putting innocent people at risk. Police also are allowed to use lethal force against someone trying to escape from prison or jail. And they are allowed to use deadly force against someone committing a felony and who an officer believes may cause serious physical harm to the officer or others.
Police have the right to defend themselves and the public. We expect that and nobody questions that. Yet this broad law increases the possibility that someone who might have been apprehended alive will never have the chance to be brought to justice. This hurts the relationship between the police and the communities they serve. It also fosters fear where there should be trust. Unchecked fear ultimately puts everyone at risk.
State HB 1000, introduced by Rep. Beth Doglio, D-Olympia, and its companion Senate bill, SB 5000, introduced by state Sen. John McCoy, D-Tulalip, are both bold and practical. Bold because they signal a real change toward bringing Washington’s lethal-force laws in line with international standards, and practical because they implement the recommended best practices of the Police Executive Research Forum. What better source for how to reshape police work than police professionals themselves?
The idea that deadly force should be used only as a last resort is not a new one. The difference is that it will be codified in the law, sending a powerful message to the public and to law enforcement that human life is precious and there will be accountability when anyone is unjustifiably killed by police.
The blanket defense in the current law, in effect, all but ensures immunity for unjustified killings by police. HB 1000 and SB 5000 replace this defense, which protects an officer from prosecution if they acted in good faith and without malice, or what is defined as “evil intent,” with a defense that shields an officer from criminal liability when the officer “reasonably believes” deadly force was necessary.
This change does two things. First, it reflects the objective reasonableness standard of the U.S. Supreme Court case of Graham v. Connor. Second, it provides a safe harbor for officers who make honest mistakes.
We are optimistic that we will all work together this session by ensuring that the law is fair, just and equitable in providing our men and women in uniform the protection they need when responding to our calls for help and keeping our communities safe and, where appropriate, affords the ability to hold accountable those officers who use deadly force in a manner that is unreasonable and unjustifiable.
On behalf of those who believe in a statewide use of deadly force law that reflects the values of liberty, dignity and respect for all — the police, the public and suspects — I urge the legislature to take up these bills and pass them without delay.