Washington’s laws wrongly protect even the most rogue police officers from criminal liability. That must change.
WASHINGTON is an extreme outlier in policing its police. The state law governing when police can be criminally liable for unlawful use of deadly force is the most restrictive in the country, a Seattle Times investigation found last year.
Out of 213 people killed by police in this state between 2005 and 2014, just one officer was prosecuted — and that Everett officer was set free by a jury despite declaring, “Time to end this,” as he shot at a drunken driver eight in the back.
Police officers perform a noble public service, often saving lives. And this type of egregious case is extremely rare — but not rare enough.
A national focus has been brought to the deaths of people of color being arrested or in police custody, spawning the Black Lives Matter movement. And that attention has also put a target on the backs of police officers: 60 officers have been shot to death so far this year, a 67 percent increase from 2015, according to the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund.
Washington state needs to reconcile those disturbing patterns, because they are linked. When police are seen as above the law, radical activists resort to violence. It is a sad fact.
One element of this complex social dilemma is within the state’s grasp. Change the state law on criminal charges against police needs. Currently, a jury must find the officer acted with “malice” in order to convict — not that the force was reckless or beyond training, but with “malice,” an intention to harm.
Last week, the state’s Use of Deadly Force in Policing task force — a group of lawmakers and representatives from civil rights, minority groups and law enforcement — recommended striking that untenable standard.
Instead, the task force recommended a new standard that would defend a “reasonable officer” using “necessary” deadly force “in light of all the facts and circumstances known” at the time. That standard would put Washington in line with most other states. The recommendation now goes to the Legislature.
Almost all of the police representatives on the task force opposed changing the law. They were unswayed by testimony from Seahawks star Doug Baldwin, the son of a police officer and an advocate for striking “malice” from the state law.
Law enforcement has understandable concerns. Confronted with split-second, life-or-death decisions, officers fear being second-guessed by facts known only later.
But the law-enforcement groups should listen to the prosecutors. Snohomish County prosecutor Mark Roe represented the state prosecutors group on the task force, and he unequivocally supported a change to the law. He prosecuted the “time to end this” case in Everett and told the task force that winning a conviction is virtually impossible absent a full confession, even in outrageous cases.
Officers should also know that criminal prosecutions against police are extraordinarily rare. Nationwide, only 54 officers were criminally charged in state courts for unlawful use of force over the past decade, according to data presented to the task force. Just 15 were convicted.
Lowering the threshold to charge cops should not be a means to punish officers acting in good faith in difficult situations. And it wouldn’t be — especially if other task-force recommendations are endorsed by the Legislature, including stronger training and better services to people in mental-health crises.
Lowering the standard is about accountability and restoring community trust. The flawed state law effectively exempts even the most rogue officers from the highest level of accountability. That must change.