With Initiative 940, Washington state lawmakers — and likely voters — may soon face big decisions on the state law that makes it nearly impossible to prosecute police officers who kill in the line of duty.
OLYMPIA — As he ferried the last batch of petitions for Initiative 940 through the drizzle and into the Washington Secretary of State’s Office, Andrè Taylor stopped a moment so campaign supporters could touch the cardboard box in his arms.
Like many here, Taylor had lost a family member — his brother, Che Taylor — to a shooting by law-enforcement officers.
On Thursday, several of those family members joined a march and speeches marking the delivery of petitions for I-940, which would make it easier to prosecute law-enforcement officers for alleged misuse of deadly force.
For years, debate has stalled over Washington’s law, which is considered the nation’s most limiting when it comes to holding officers accountable for unjustified use of deadly force.
Meanwhile, high-profile shootings — including the deaths in Seattle of Taylor and Charleena Lyles — by white officers of African Americans and other minorities have underscored concerns about law enforcement.
Now, Thursday’s milestone by the group De-Escalate Washington is likely to force hard decisions over deadly force laws.
If it qualifies, I-940 would first go to the Washington state Legislature, where it faces long odds.
With community activists and law-enforcement groups deadlocked over how — and even whether — to change the law, lawmakers earlier this year scuttled a compromise proposal.
Those disagreements haven’t changed, and two key House lawmakers already are saying I-940 will fare no better in the legislative session that begins in January.
If lawmakers take no action, I-940 will go to the November general-election ballot. If legislators pass an altered version, both proposals go to the ballot.
The campaign said it handed in about 360,000 signatures — far above the 260,000 required to put the measure before the Legislature.
Andrè Taylor, chair of De-Escalate Washington, said he hoped that number would spur lawmakers to act.
“The overwhelming amount of signatures that we’ve been able to gather should give them some kind of indication of what the state is saying,” said Taylor.
Rep. Roger Goodman, D-Kirkland and chair of the House Public Safety Committee, said he’s committed to giving I-940 a public hearing. But he is one of two lawmakers who acknowledged the Legislature probably won’t act on I-940.
Goodman, who was involved in this year’s compromise efforts on deadly force, said it’s hard to know how I-940 would do on a ballot.
The issue has also become an emotional one for supporters of law enforcement, who have defended officers as police shootings became a national issue.
A campaign against I-940, Goodman said, could argue that it might hinder officers from responding properly in emergency situations.
“This is a different type of initiative,” said Goodman, “than raising the minimum wage.”
Officers rarely charged
Community advocates have argued Washington’s current law is overdue for a change.
Right now, an officer can’t be convicted of a crime for using deadly force if he or she acted in good faith and without malice, or what the law calls “evil intent.”
That makes it nearly impossible for prosecutors to bring criminal charges even if they find an officer committed a wrongful killing, according to a 2015 report by The Seattle Times.
That report found 213 people in Washington were killed by police between 2005 and 2014 — but only one officer was criminally charged.
In that one case, a jury acquitted an Everett police officer who had been charged with second-degree murder and manslaughter after he fatally shot a drunken man in 2009 through the rear window of the man’s car.
I-940 would change the law to a more detailed, multipart threshold that considers what a “reasonable officer” might have done under the circumstances. It also would take into account an officer’s intentions to determine if she or he acted in good faith.
The initiative also requires more de-escalation and mental-health training for law-enforcement officers.
“There’s no way in the world that we in Washington state … should have a worse law on police accountability than Mississippi or anybody else,” Andrè Taylor said Thursday. “There’s no way in the world.”
Law-enforcement groups, however, have protested changes to the deadly force statute. They say the new legal standard could prompt officers to hesitate in ways that could endanger themselves and others.
“Unfortunately, this initiative will not do anything to reduce violent interactions between law enforcement and the public,” said Teresa Taylor, executive director for the Washington Council of Police & Sheriffs (WACOPS), which represents more than 4,300 law-enforcement officers.
After lengthy rounds of meetings in 2016 to build agreement about what to do over the law, WACOPS and several other law-enforcement groups voted against the idea of changing the law.
This month, as the deadline for filing I-940 approached, WACOPS and others underscored their opposition to De-Escalate Washington with a joint news release.
The initiative “does not make communities safer,” according to the release. “It does not provide any funding to deal with the true problems that our communities face: rampant opioid addiction, a growing homeless population and a chronically underfunded mental-health system.”
Rep. Brad Klippert, R-Kennewick and ranking member of the House Public Safety Committee, said he doesn’t see support in the Legislature to pass I-940.
And Klippert, a deputy with the Benton County Sheriff’s Department, doesn’t support the initiative himself.
“I think that our law-enforcement officers by and large are doing a fantastic job, every day,” said Klippert.
Tribes offer support
In their march Thursday, demonstrators carried a “Justice for Jackie” banner.
Jacqueline Salyers, a Puyallup tribal member, was shot to death by law enforcement while in a car in 2016, according to The News Tribune.
Salyers was pregnant, according to the report.
But Washington’s Native American tribal members weren’t merely visible at Thursday’s event. They played a central role in funding the petition drive.
De-Escalate Washington spent about $860,000 on its petition efforts, according to state records. More than $640,000 of that was spent paying a firm to gather signatures.
The Puyallup Tribe gave the single biggest chunk of money to the campaign, according to records: a total of $175,000.
Combined donations by other tribes topped $110,000, including $75,000 from the Muckleshoot Indian Tribe.
Another pregnant woman, Renee Davis, was shot to death in 2016 by King County sheriff’s deputies on Muckleshoot tribal lands.
The tribes did more than just donate, according to Tim Reynon, a Puyallup tribal councilman who serves as vice chair for De-Escalate Washington. His tribe reached out to other tribes for support and to collect signatures, Reynon said.
“We had the opportunity of going around the state, from Quinault to Spokane, to Colville, Yakima, all across the state,” Reynon told supporters gathered Thursday. “And we came together as tribes and supported this cause.”
Several unions also contributed to I-940.