A serious flaw in Washington’s system of police accountability allows problem police officers to resurface in other departments. As shown in an investigation by The Seattle Times’ Michael Reicher, law officers fired for misconduct frequently keep a state credential to work as police again because the decertification process is so seldom used.
The Legislature built this system in 2001, giving the Washington State Criminal Justice Training Commission authority to certify law enforcement officers statewide and to revoke those certifications. But the process has proven inadequate. The Legislature must strengthen the commission’s oversight powers.
The list of failures is too substantial to ignore in a time when police violence has sparked sustained protests in Seattle and across the nation. A Tukwila officer fired from two police departments after racist and violent behavior and convicted of a federal civil rights charge never had his certification revoked. The Seattle police officer who shot First Nations totem carver John T. Williams in 2010 was not decertified. Two Shelton police officers fired in 2017 over the brutal beating of a homeless man can still renew their certifications.
If any of these officers with violent records finds a Washington law enforcement agency willing to hand them badges and guns, certification is available for them to be sworn in. That gap in accountability must end.
Some reforms require money state government does not have, facing a projected shortfall of more than $8 billion over the next three years. However, some urgent changes should not be delayed.
Washington needs effective statewide oversight of policing at every level, from small-town departments to the State Patrol. Local control can provide excellent governance in many instances, but law enforcement transcends the interest of the local electorate. Police officers and deputies must protect everyone who passes through a place, not just residents.
Cohesive rules must guide agencies whose jurisdictions overlap. When Tacoma police killed Manuel Ellis March 3, sheriff’s deputies and a State Patrol officer were also on the scene. One statewide set of standards is better governance than guidelines shaped at various county and municipal levels.
Oversight is also a state role because law enforcement agencies can be tempted to shrug off bad behavior. Hiring an experienced officer saves time and money over recruiting a fresh one. An academy year can top $100,000 in salary and other costs, plus time to acclimate the rookie. Adding a veteran certified cop, even one previously fired, does not come with those burdens. State agencies should impede the cycle of a rightly fired officer going straight to another department.
That means putting muscle into decertification. The Criminal Justice Training Commission needs power to advance cases without waiting for a felony conviction or the end of appeals of an officer’s firing. The ability of police chiefs and sheriffs to omit a decertification recommendation in exchange for a problematic officer’s willing departure must be curtailed. A state database to thoroughly track police misconduct should be created. Records of all completed investigations must be preserved to track incident patterns; presently, they’re destroyed if an officer is cleared.
The list of needed reforms is long and will require determined lawmakers. The section of state law that gives the commission oversight is riddled with loopholes and leniency. No state law requires officers to report to their agency that they’ve been criminally charged elsewhere. Criteria for decertification only includes certain types of duty-related dishonesty.
The vast majority of Washington’s 11,400 law officers would feel no harm with improved oversight. But the lack of strong accountability allows even bad officers to keep a credential the state has a duty to guard carefully. Policing the police isn’t an option. It’s an obligation.