A Senate committee is scheduled Thursday to hear a new proposal to change Washington’s police use-of-deadly force laws. Lawmakers are still searching for a compromise that can pass the Legislature.
OLYMPIA — A state Senate committee is scheduled Thursday to hear a new proposal to change Washington’s statute for when law-enforcement officers can be charged for using deadly force.
The 10 a.m. hearing in the Senate Law and Justice Committee comes as legislators try to bridge a deep divide over how, and even whether, the law should be changed.
Washington’s current law makes it nearly impossible for prosecutors to criminally charge an officer who uses deadly force, even when it’s concluded someone wrongfully died at the hands of an officer.
That’s because the law states that an officer can’t be charged if he or she acted in good faith during an incident — and without malice.
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A special task force last year made up of lawmakers, community advocates, law-enforcement groups and others voted narrowly to recommend removing references to both “malice” and “good faith” in the law.
That vote came along with a package of recommendations to reduce deadly use-of-force, which included better data collection, more training for officers and improvements in the state’s mental-health system.
But with law-enforcement groups and some lawmakers opposing changes to the language, that proposal is unlikely to get far in Olympia.
The new proposal, a substitute version of SB 5073, would remove the word “malice” and give a definition of what “good faith” means.
Sen. David Frockt, D-Seattle, who sponsored the bill, said he hoped this version could be a compromise. The bill also includes creation of a dedicated state account to fund officer training, said Frockt, who served on last year’s task force.
That’s important, Frockt said, because law-enforcement groups don’t want to get training money from the state, only to see it diverted elsewhere in a budget crisis.
Additionally, his bill makes changes to proposals on training and community outreach, and on how to collect data on deadly use-of-force incidents.
“This is an emotional issue,” said Frockt, adding that one goal of Thursday’s hearing “is to take the temperature down” on the debate over use of deadly force. “We’re trying to find common ground here with something that could pass.”
Frockt said the changes in the law’s language in the latest version were provided by the Washington Association of Prosecuting Attorneys.
“We can support the elimination of ‘malice’ if coupled with a fair definition of good faith,” Tom McBride, the association’s executive secretary, wrote in an email.
McBride and Frockt both describe the latest proposal, as something that goes beyond a change in language, and would help reduce use-of-force incidents overall.
Sen. Steve O’Ban, R-University Place, vice chair of the Senate Law and Justice Committee, said he is keeping an open mind on this year’s use-of-force proposals.
“I’m certainly open to some sort of a compromise, if one can be reached,” O’Ban said.
Thursday’s hearing comes the same week that House members heard other bills intended to change use-of-force laws and reduce deadly incidents.
“We’re not at the point of reaching a comprise yet, but we’ve begun to build common ground,” said Rep. Roger Goodman, D-Kirkland, sponsor of HB 1769 and chair of the House Public Safety Committee.