Among the Washington’s Legislature’s top priorities must be police reform to reduce violence, increase accountability and address systemic racism statewide.
Early work is encouraging, with around a dozen recommendations being drafted and refined by legislators with input from activists, police organizations and others.
When the Legislature convenes in January, lawmakers must follow through and get urgently needed reforms done.
Legislators should easily agree on new protocols for reporting officer misconduct and decertifying problematic officers, so they can’t be rehired in other jurisdictions.
New databases to track misconduct cases and disclose police activity, including stops and use of force, are likely to be authorized and bring welcome transparency.
“Police reform is definitely top of the agenda,” said state Rep. Roger Goodman, a Kirkland Democrat and state House Public Safety Committee chair.
Standards for police tactics, banning dangerous practices such as chokeholds, no-knock warrants and shooting at moving vehicles, are also proposed.
State Sen. Jamie Pedersen, a Seattle Democrat chairing the Law & Justice Committee, said he’s never seen so much early coordination between chambers during his 14 years in office.
He expects the Legislature will pass “as significant a set of reforms as we’ve seen in any state.”
Legislators are being responsive, said Devitta Briscoe, a Washington Coalition for Police Accountability member. Her brother was shot and killed by Seattle police in 2016.
Briscoe told this board the slate of proposals “aligns with our values, especially for the families.”
One of her particular priorities is creating a new state agency to investigate and prosecute deadly force incidents.
That’s important, as is the need for funding. Police reforms can be expensive, especially if they create new entities and obligations for local jurisdictions. Costs cannot be an afterthought.
Bipartisan support is still needed to build support for measures that will be controversial to some and need to be embraced statewide.
Republican state Rep. Brad Klippert, a Benton County deputy and ranking member of the Public Safety committee, said there’s not consensus on all the proposals.
Klippert is particularly concerned about ensuring due process as the Legislature wades into the thorny subject of disciplining officers for misconduct.
Yet there is common ground. Both Briscoe and Klippert said transparency and accountability are critical, and both want reforms to build trust in law enforcement.
Klippert also supports use-of-force reforms, if the policies reflect an understanding of nonlethal tools used by police.
“I want to work with people to get it right,” Klippert said.
That’s encouraging, but big hurdles remain.
There is already pushback against a cornerstone of the reform package: a proposal to improve the current use of arbitration to settle disputes over police discipline. The current system is opaque and undermines the authority of police departments to uphold standards.
In one notorious case, an arbitrator reversed the firing of a Seattle officer, for punching a woman handcuffed in a patrol car in 2014. The arbitrator took until 2018 to rule, then was overturned by a Superior Court judge in 2019.
There needs to be a fair and reasonable dispute resolution system, but not one that consistently undermines discipline. The latter does not build trust or respect for law enforcement.
That’s part of a broader question about limiting the scope of police union contracts, so things like the arbitration process and use-of-force standards aren’t subject to local bargaining. Such limits are needed to strengthen the overall reform effort and prevent it from being watered down in local jurisdictions.
To paraphrase the federal judge overseeing Seattle’s police department, police unions cannot bargain over constitutional policing. Doing things right is part of the job, not something that requires extra pay.
But labor groups, including Teamsters and a state employees union, are objecting to what they see as state interference in unique local contracts, according to Goodman.
Democrats controlling the Legislature are likely to cave to such pressure unless there’s substantial public demand for strong reforms.
Briscoe said it well:
“It still falls down to the power of the people,” she said. “We had push back when we started Initiative 940, but it was the power of the people that spoke.”
Outstanding effort is being made so far by legislators in response to widespread demand for police reforms.
Now they must build wider support among colleagues and swiftly pass these promising laws to increase accountability, build trust and make Washington safer and more just for all.