OLYMPIA — A year after George Floyd’s murder, Washington has a dozen new laws intended to reshape policing and to hold officers more accountable for misconduct.
Those laws include a ban on no-knock warrants, chokeholds and neck restraints, and a requirement that officers intervene when witnessing excessive force by fellow officers.
Other laws make it easier to decertify officers for misconduct and collect data from law enforcement agencies on use of force. One bill creates an independent office to investigate police use of deadly force.
But state lawmakers, determined to address racism across society, went even further. They passed a broad slate of bills intended to address systemic racism in schools and through environmental policy. They outlawed the use of Native American mascots for school teams. They elevated Juneteenth to a paid holiday for state workers.
It’s a striking turnaround since the killing of Floyd and others — including Manuel Ellis, who died last spring at the hands of Tacoma police — sent people into the streets in protest.
In Washington, that national uprising combined with other dynamics to make this year’s legislative session the most consequential for reforms.
For years before Floyd’s murder, family members of people killed by police in Washington had been pushing reforms, with mixed success.
That grassroots organizing combined with last year’s public outrage was heard in Olympia by the most diverse Legislature in state history. Meanwhile, lawmakers and community advocates continued a yearslong dialogue with law enforcement groups, some of whom lent their support to some of the new measures.
For families of Black people killed by police, like DeVitta Briscoe — the sister of Che Taylor, who was shot and killed in 2016 by Seattle Police — it’s a bittersweet moment.
“Even though it doesn’t bring them back, it does give you some sense of solace that your loved ones are being remembered,” said Briscoe. “And that somehow these wrongs are being righted.
“For families that worked on these bills, it does give us some sense of relief, from the pain and anguish that we have experienced,” she added.
Lawmakers say the protests, combined with disparities unmasked by the COVID-19 pandemic, helped spur them to action. Meanwhile, the Legislature has become increasingly diverse over the last few election cycles, with lawmakers of color pushing to make sure their voices are heard.
Before the last few years, there had been only a handful of lawmakers of color in the Senate and the House, said Senate Deputy Majority Leader Sen. Rebecca Saldaña, D-Seattle.
“You either get tokenized, or you get sidelined or you end up choosing your battles,” said Saldaña. “With more of you there, people can’t tokenize you in the same way.”
Saldaña this year helped pass an environmental-justice measure known as the Healthy Environment for All (HEAL) Act. Among other things, it requires several state agencies to take into account disproportionately impacted communities to make sure officials are working to reduce environmental harms in those places.
Sen. Mona Das, D-Kent, attributed the successes on policing and equity legislation to the newer crop of lawmakers also having different socioeconomic backgrounds, and they include refugees and immigrants.
Das this year successfully sponsored legislation that requires training K-12 schools staff in cultural competency, and diversity, equity and inclusion. That was one of multiple bills aimed at addressing equity in education.
“And when you elect different people, with different backgrounds … you get different results,” Das said.
Some of this year’s new policing reforms got some support from law enforcement. The Washington Fraternal Order of Police supported House Bill 1054, which banned chokeholds, neck restraints and no-knock warrants, and restricted the use of tear gas and some military gear. The organization also supported the bills requiring officers to intervene, and the collection of use-of-force data, among others.
Overall, “While we disagree with several provisions of the bills signed by the governor, this approach is what’s necessary to begin rebuilding the trust, confidence and relationships we need within the communities we serve,” said Marco Monteblanco, president of the Washington FOP, in a statement.
“We have chosen to engage and connect with community organizations, victims’ advocacy groups, and lawmakers themselves to seek common ground without unduly compromising the ability of our members and all peace officers to do their jobs,” he added.
Lawmakers also passed Senate Bill 5051, which strengthens the process allowing the state to decertify an officer for misconduct.
In an investigation last year, The Seattle Times found that the state had never decertified an officer for excessive force, and that the grounds for decertification were so narrow that only a fraction of troubled officers have lost their licenses. Among the hurdles in the law: An officer had to be fired for misconduct before losing credentials, so much of the power rested with local chiefs and sheriffs.
Out of about 11,000 officers in the state in recent years, an average of about 100 a year were fired, and more than 40 a year had misconduct serious enough that their own supervisors flagged them for decertification, according to a Times analysis. Of those, just 13 a year on average lost their credential.
Police unions fought a previous effort to reform the decertification system in 2014, and it never made it out of state legislative committees.
In last week’s bill signing in Tacoma for the policing legislation, the sponsor of SB 5051, Sen. Jamie Pedersen, D-Seattle, apologized that lawmakers hadn’t acted sooner.
“Where I find myself is feeling a lot of guilt and shame,” said Pedersen, chair of the Senate Law and Justice Committee. “That for so many years, as you have spoken out, as family members have told their stories about a system that did not take care of them … too many of us, myself included, stood by and did nothing.”
Staff reporter Mike Reicher contributed to this report.
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