The law should protect police officers from prosecution for reasonable mistakes. We pay them to encounter unpredictable threats for us that require split-second decisions on limited information.
Initiative 940 is misleading, dangerous and wasteful. It increases risk to law enforcement and the citizens they serve. It wastes resources and time with confusing, duplicative training mandates in areas where Washington is already industry-leading. It makes medical aid to injured suspects the ultimate priority, even when dangerous suspects remain at large threatening officers and citizens. The Legislature has already recognized the initiative is significantly flawed. Washington voters should reject this initiative and leave this complicated and vitally important issue to the Legislature to decide.
While I-940 is camouflaged as a training initiative, its real goal is to make it easier to prosecute a police officer who takes a life while facing threats protecting his or her community. It replaces the current “malice” test with a confusing, two-pronged “good faith” test. It effectively shifts the burden to the officer to prove she acted in good faith, and away from the prosecutor as is required in all other criminal prosecutions. Even if reasonable officers could disagree on the act, the officer could be prosecuted. The initiative’s aim, consequently, is simple — to make it easier to convict officers whether or not they knowingly acted wrongfully.
The initiative’s ambiguous training provisions, moreover, mandate new training schemes that generally duplicate existing state-of-the-art programs. Washington is already a leader in training on altered-state suspects, cultural sensitivity and bias. The initiative nevertheless requires new training without identifying what changes are required or even desired. It mandates training on mental health evaluation that even medical experts could not accomplish accurately and consistently, let alone in traumatic situations. It requires program development in consultation with poorly defined “community stakeholders” but provides no direction on what should occur when “stakeholders” disagree. Finally, it provides no funding, leaving the training commission and local agencies on the hook for these largely duplicative mandates.
This initiative is also dangerous. Police officers will recognize their personal risk should they ever make a mistake. Officers will rightfully pause to consider whether they should immediately confront dangerous, but unclear scenarios knowing they may be prosecuted for making a split-second decision later questioned in 20-20 hindsight. Officers will necessarily be forced to pause and call for more backup, supervisors and specialized response teams in dangerous situations. Domestic violence victims, homeowners facing intruders, and others in immediate peril will bear the risk of that delay, which will fall disproportionately on our less fortunate communities where 911 calls are more common.
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Officers, too, will be endangered. We can be virtually certain that an officer will die because she hesitated in the face of an apparent deadly threat out of fear of prosecution if she makes a mistake. In that moment of doubt, the suspect will have the advantage — Washington will lose more police officers.
The law should protect officers from prosecution for reasonable mistakes. We pay them to encounter unpredictable threats for us that require split-second decisions on limited information. If reasonable officers could disagree on an officer’s reaction, they should be protected from prosecution if we want them to promptly face those threats and keep us safe. This initiative would effectively allow a prosecutor to charge any time another officer with the benefit of hindsight disagrees with the involved officer’s decision. Recruiting new officers is already a problem, this initiative would only make that problem worse.
We do not suggest the current system cannot be improved, and fair-minded people can and should find sensible, common ground. These topics are complicated, however, and should be left to the Legislature, not an ambiguous, dangerous initiative. These aren’t car tabs; they are life and death issues. Let’s reject this initiative and let the Legislature chart a better course.