The bill, introduced in the state Legislature, would remove statutory language barring police officers in Washington state from being prosecuted for killing someone in the line of duty as long as they acted in good faith and without malice, or what is defined as “evil intent.”
A bill that would make it easier to bring criminal charges against officers over the use of deadly force has been introduced in the state Legislature, setting up a clash with law-enforcement leaders who oppose the measure.
The bill, sponsored by 12 Democrats in the House, would remove language in state law barring police officers from being prosecuted for killing someone in the line of duty as long as they acted in good faith and without malice, or what is defined as “evil intent.”
The language, enacted in 1986, was the subject of a Seattle Times special report in September, which described the limitation as the most restrictive in the nation and a virtual curb on bringing murder or manslaughter charges even if prosecutors concluded that an officer committed a wrongful killing.
The bill comes at a time of national scrutiny of killings by police, marked by the Black Lives Matter movement.
It faces a steep hurdle to attract enough votes in the House, which is narrowly controlled by Democrats, some from conservative rural districts, and to win passage in the Republican-controlled Senate.
In addition to striking the malice and good-faith wording, House Bill 2907 eliminates language outlining some scenarios in which officers may use deadly force.
It’s replaced by streamlined wording, which requires an officer to “reasonably” believe that there is an “imminent threat” of death or serious injury to the officer or a third party, and that lethal action is necessary to prevent it.
What is reasonable, imminent and necessary is likely to be hotly debated, even as the bill’s supporters contend the bill provides clarity.
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“Our association will oppose this bill,” said Mitch Barker, executive director of the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs (WASPC).
The current law has worked well for decades, he said, adding that his association disagrees with the claim the new language offers more clarity.
The bill is so “radical” it will likely drive officers expected to confront danger and make split-second decisions from the profession, Barker said.
“We don’t like it in any aspect,” he said of the proposal. “I think it’s bad policy.”
The bill’s prime sponsor, Rep. Luis Moscoso, D-Bothell, said, “The police are pretty dug in, I get that.”
However, he said, he hopes to foster discussion about addressing an important problem.
Supporters believe the proposed changes would be beneficial.
“This legislation provides much-needed guidance to law enforcement officers statewide on the use of deadly force,” Kathleen Taylor, executive director of the ACLU of Washington, said in a statement. “It rightly allows officers to use deadly force only if they reasonably believe that there is an imminent threat of serious harm to themselves or other persons.”
Taylor said the changes would ensure officers are better equipped to handle difficult interactions, while increasing trust between police and the community.
Law-enforcement officers, as trained professionals, should be required to employ the “utmost care” in using deadly force, Taylor said.
“But under current state law, officers cannot be charged for the unjustified use of deadly force unless they act with ‘malice,’” she added. “This law has made it nearly impossible for the public to hold officers accountable for the wrongful use of deadly force and has hindered our ability to ensure justice for all.”
Tom McBride, executive secretary of the Washington Association of Prosecuting Attorneys, said in an email that his organization will review the bill, but eliminating the “good faith” wording will “likely be a problem.”
Last year, the association, representing prosecutors from 39 counties, thought about whether to seek a change in the law. By assent, it opted at an Oct. 1 meeting to encourage discussion within their respective communities and see if any drafts or details of proposed statute changes emerged.
Striking the word “malice” might be most open to discussion, given the high bar it presents.
But Barker, of WASPC, who worked in law enforcement for four agencies over 33 years, said there already is a remedy when police officers make a mistake: civil litigation to recover monetary damages.
“But it doesn’t make them a criminal,” he said, asserting the bill stems from an undercurrent of “Let’s find a way” to charge a police officer.
The bill’s preface states its intent is to align Washington with other states, while providing guidance that “upholds the role of law enforcement to maintain public safety and foster accountability and public trust.”
The bill has been referred to the House Committee on Public Safety, with a hearing scheduled for Wednesday.
It grew out of draft legislation prepared by the Black Alliance of Thurston County, formed in the aftermath of the shooting of two young black men in Olympia last year by a white police officer, said Karen Johnson, chair and co-founder of the organization.
The goal is to no longer have the “most egregious” deadly-force language in the nation, she said.
“We want to move from last place to first,” Johnson said.