Community advocates have perhaps never been closer to getting changes in the Washington law that protects police from prosecution after officers kill people. But it’s likely going to take compromise.
OLYMPIA — Community advocates have perhaps never been closer to pushing through a change in the Washington state law that protects police officers from prosecution when they use deadly force.
And yet, the final meeting of the state’s Use of Deadly Force in Community Policing joint task force also highlighted just how deep a divide remains between community advocates and law-enforcement groups.
Task-force members last week voted narrowly to recommend removing from the law references to malice and good faith. Those references now make it difficult for prosecutors to bring criminal charges against an officer found to have wrongfully killed someone, a Seattle Times investigation found last year. An officer can’t be charged if he or she acted in good faith during an incident, and without malice.
In last Monday’s vote, 14 of the task force’s 26 members approved removing those terms — with law-enforcement representatives largely opposing the move.
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Advocacy groups, including those representing African-American and Hispanic communities, argued there was moral urgency to change a law amid a spate of high-profile police shootings that has sown mistrust of law enforcement.
On the other side, groups such as the Washington Council of Police and Sheriffs and the state’s Fraternal Order of Police put forth their own proposal suggesting there was no reason to change the law. They focused instead on boosting funding for law-enforcement training and the state’s mental-health system, as well as data collection on use-of-force incidents.
Now, elected officials must find a way to bring those sides close enough together to get the votes needed to pass any changes.
“I think this is one where we’ve got to try to get law enforcement and prosecutors into a position where they can live with the outcome of the process,” said Sen. David Frockt, D-Seattle and a task-force member.
That’s a tricky proposition with Washington’s divided Legislature, where Democrats control the House and Republicans hold the Senate. Right now, bills with even the slightest whiff of controversy often quickly die.
The lone GOP lawmaker to vote on the task-force recommendations, Sen. Kirk Pearson of Monroe, rejected several proposals to change the law. Meanwhile, Sen. Mike Padden, R-Spokane Valley and chairman of the Senate Law and Justice Committee, said he may let lawmakers in the House tackle the issue first.
Getting all the groups and lawmakers to agree is going to take, “The magic of the sausage-making process,” as Rep. Roger Goodman, D-Kirkland put it.
A compromise on changing the law likely will include funding boosts in law-enforcement training and data collection, said Goodman, a task-force member and chairman of the House Public Safety Committee.
“I don’t think one [part] will succeed without the other,” he said.
Any agreement on a change to the law also likely means tweaking the language beyond the recommendation that the task force approved.
Snohomish County Prosecutor Mark Roe — who didn’t support the recommendation that passed — took his own stab at compromise with the task force.
Roe and another task-force member drafted language that removed the reference to malice and redefined the language surrounding good faith. The proposal failed — but drew a handful of votes that didn’t support the successful recommendation.
Roe said he understood why law-enforcement groups don’t want the law changed.
“They’re kind of under siege, when 99.9 percent of them are doing the right thing,” said Roe, who represented the Washington Association of Prosecuting Attorneys on the task force. But, “I don’t think it helped that they weren’t even willing to consider any change” to the law.
Sue Rahr, executive director of the Washington State Criminal Justice Training Commission, said Roe’s proposal “is a very reasonable place to be.”
“In my opinion, that provides adequate protection for an officer making a good-faith mistake,” said Rahr, a member of the task force.
Community-advocacy groups, however, voted against Roe’s proposal, and against a third proposal — also unsuccessful — that only would have removed the malice reference from the law.
Karen Johnson, of the Black Alliance of Thurston County, said lawmakers should take a stand and pass the recommendation the task force approved.
“Now’s the time when we can collectively bend that arc of the universe toward liberty and justice for all, not just some,” said Johnson, a task-force member who voted against Roe’s proposal.
Johnson said changes to the law are necessary for there to also be increases in funding for training. “If there’s no accountability,” she said, “why even waste the money and the taxpayers’ dollars?”
If the House crafted a compromise that picked up Republican votes, Frockt said that might help move the GOP-held Senate to take action on changing the law.
He cited the state’s Dream Act, which passed a few years ago after first getting strong bipartisan support in the House.
“There’s more work to be done,” Frockt said. But, “there’s seeds of a fair outcome here.”