As a jury on Tuesday found former Minneapolis Police officer Derek Chauvin guilty of murdering George Floyd, Washington state was poised to enact some important police reforms.
But lawmakers shrank from a critical bill that would have ensured that law enforcement officers who abuse their authority aren’t put back on the job. Next session, they must remove police disciplinary matters from collective bargaining. It is the key that will unlock the full potential of this session’s important work.
Bills on their way to the governor’s desk would establish a public use-of-force database, require a state auditor review to ensure deadly force investigations were properly conducted, compel officers to intervene when they witness a colleague using excessive force and make it easier for victims to sue for damages.
Not far behind is a bill expanding the grounds for decertifying police and corrections officers and requiring agencies to report separation and disciplinary matters to the Criminal Justice Training Commission. A legislative conference committee is expected to negotiate lingering differences in House and Senate bills prohibiting police use of chokeholds, neck restraints, tear gas and no-knock warrants.
These bills are the products of robust community engagement and a sense of urgency inspired by the inexcusable deaths of Floyd, Breonna Taylor and, locally, Manuel Ellis, who died of oxygen deprivation in a March 3, 2020, encounter with Tacoma Police.
But the impact of this new legislation is muted somewhat by the Democratic-controlled Legislature’s failure to flout union pressure, and empower police chiefs and sheriffs to purge bad officers from their departments. The Senate Labor, Commerce & Tribal Affairs committee sat on Senate Bill 5134, which would have done just that, in the face of opposition from law enforcement unions and other labor groups.
On April 7, Gov. Jay Inslee signed into law a weaker bill intended to make such arbitration more consistent and transparent. SB 5055 creates a statewide roster of arbitrators appointed by the Public Employment Relations Commission to hear disputes of any disciplinary action, discharge or termination covered by law enforcement collective bargaining agreements. The commission will post arbitrators’ decisions on its website, redacting the names of grievants and witnesses. It isn’t enough.
The year of protests spurred by Floyd’s murder has proven that police misconduct is a vital matter of public interest, fundamentally different from working conditions. There is no justification for discipline to be subject to arbitration. Labor groups are wrong to believe that SB 5134 represented a threat to workers’ rights.
Legislative leaders do a disservice to victims and survivors tby stopping short of holding bad cops accountable for fear of eroding collective bargaining.
Regardless of whether unions have a change a heart next year, lawmakers must find the political will to get it done.
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