Too many Washington law enforcement agencies are flouting a law that reformed police use-of-force investigations. Attorney General Bob Ferguson foundmany agencies have failed to abide by new voter-approved mandates to improve accountability.

Nearly 60% of state voters approved Initiative 940 in 2018 to create rules on how police use of deadly force is investigated. Deaths and serious injuries caused by police now require independent investigations from uninvolved agencies, with input from victims’ families and transparency for the entire community. Yet police agencies have been shirking this new responsibility. Ferguson’s office looked into 18 instances of police violence in 2020, in the first six months after Initiative 940 took effect, and found that just five investigations did what the law prescribes. 

Two investigating entities, the Tacoma Police Department and the multiagency Southwest Washington Independent Investigative Response team, repeatedly failed to carry out the I-940 requirements for community involvement, the report said.

This must not stand. In one situation, the Pierce County Sheriff’s Office did not immediately recuse itself from investigating the Tacoma Police-involved killing of Manuel Ellis one year ago, even though at least one deputy was involved. The Pierce sheriff also did not complete the survey for Ferguson’s I-940 report.

Police cannot exempt themselves from the law. The Legislature should improve oversight and shut down such evasions of accountability and transparency. 

The shortcomings of the current system begin with the paucity of information Ferguson’s office had to work with. With no state repository of data for when police use force against civilians, the AG’s office had to look for citations in news stories. The crisis state of local reporting in many Washington locales makes this an inadequate way to thoroughly track police activities.

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Police agencies across the state have not done enough to improve transparency. The FBI’s voluntary National Use-of-Force Data Collection website launched in 2019, but just 38 of 299 Washington agencies participated in 2020. State Senate Bill 5259, sponsored by first-term Sen. T’wina Nobles, D-Fircrest, and requested by Ferguson, is a good remedy for this aspect of the problem. It would create a new state-managed database and require all law enforcement agencies to report any use of force. It passed with an overwhelming 46-2 bipartisan majority Monday. The House and Gov. Jay Inslee should put it into law without hesitation.

But transparency alone is not enough. The independent investigations required under I-940 must be systemic, not discretionary decisions for local agencies. Ferguson’s report proves that law enforcement agencies failed to show they can be trusted to carry out this new law alone. As Ferguson recommends, independent, consistent state-level oversight should hold agencies responsible for their compliance.

Police chiefs and sheriffs do not get to decide which laws to follow. When a law is made, government agencies must obey it.