OLYMPIA — Banning chokeholds by police. Creating a statewide investigative agency to review law-enforcement use-of-force instances. Creating local civilian-accountability boards. Strengthening the ability to decertify officers after misconduct.
Just two years after Washington lawmakers — and, subsequently, voters — passed a sweeping package of law-enforcement accountability provisions, lawmakers are set to make an ambitious new push on the issue.
Roughly a dozen bills are being prepared by Democratic lawmakers, after a year of outrage and protests over the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police.
Closer to home, the killing in Tacoma of Manuel Ellis highlighted yet another death at the hands of police — and showed that law enforcement isn’t necessarily following the provisions passed in 2018’s Initiative 940.
But the new proposals come as lawmakers must wrestle with an economic crisis brought on by the coronavirus pandemic and restrictions, and the logistical difficulties of working remotely.
At the same time, it remains to be seen whether the legislation can gain support from law enforcement and prosecutors and get the votes to reach the desk of Gov. Jay Inslee to sign.
Meanwhile, policing — as with the coronavirus — has this year become another fissure in America’s deepening polarization.
Even as lawmakers prepare for a hard push in the legislative session that begins in January, some say they expect law-enforcement accountability to remain an issue for years.
“I personally think of things as short-term goals, medium-term goals and long-term goals,” said Rep. Debra Entenman, D-Kent, and one of the Legislature’s few Black lawmakers.
“But overall, what we hope for is a fundamental change to how members of our community have relationships with law enforcement officers,” she added.
The proposals being developed range from strengthening the ability to decertify officers for misconduct, a version of which is being drafted by Sen. Jamie Pedersen, D-Seattle. Another bill is geared toward creating a statewide, public database that tracks uses of police force and stops by officers, as well as searches and arrests, according to Rep. Roger Goodman, D-Kirkland.
Other proposals would create local civilian oversight boards and potentially tighten the standard in state law for when the use of deadly force is justified, said Goodman, who chairs the House Public Safety Committee.
There are two other high-profile proposals. One, driven by an independent task force convened by Inslee after the killing of Floyd and Ellis, is expected to propose an independent agency to investigate use-of-force incidents by officers.
The second, by Rep. Jesse Johnson, D-Federal Way, is expected to prohibit or severely curtail a range of controversial police tactics.
That bill would ban the use of chokeholds and neck restraints, the use of unleashed police dogs, no-knock warrants and the practice of officers intentionally concealing their badges, Johnson said. It also would aim to demilitarize law enforcement, which has benefited from years of military surplus gear.
“Law enforcement wants to get there on some of these issues,” Johnson said. But differences remain, added Johnson, who is Black.
For example, some in law enforcement don’t want to ban neck restraints or still want to be able to use no-knock warrants in some instances, he said.
Johnson is also set to introduce legislation to establish local community-advocacy boards across the state over the next five years. That will have a population threshold, Johnson said, so a small city like Republic, which in recent years has had just one officer, wouldn’t be required to have one.
“The idea is that community has said that accountability through law enforcement has not worked,” Johnson said. “And we need more community oversight in order to bolster positive outcomes that we want, and it’s vital to that trust between law enforcement and community,”
In a House Public Safety Committee session Monday, some of the issues were greeted by pointed questions from Rep. Brad Klippert, R-Kennewick.
Klippert, a deputy in the Benton County Sheriff’s Office, said he thought law enforcement didn’t get enough time to have their perspective heard and wanted to make sure officers get input into the proposals.
“I know by and large my fellow law-enforcement officers on a daily basis do heroic, incredibly service-oriented events and over and over and over again,” said Klippert, ranking Republican on the House Public Safety Committee.
Incoming GOP Senate Minority Leader John Braun, of Centralia, said Republicans have concerns, in part, because they “haven’t been invited to the discussion.”
He’s interested in working on reforms that aren’t “a strictly defund police perspective,” said Braun, and that also consider “law and order and the safety of our citizens.”
“But also recognizes that we need to do that in a way that’s safe for everybody,” he added.
Some proposals, such as the statewide approach to investigating or prosecuting officer misconduct, could take a lot of work by lawmakers to make feasible.
A three-page chart assembled during the governor’s task force showed a range of constitutional and legal concerns for many approaches to that type of system.
And a statewide office to investigate uses of deadly force would need a lot of resources to be successful, said Russell Brown, executive director of the Washington Association of Prosecuting Attorneys.
In the first half of this year Washington saw approximately 30 cases where officers used deadly force, Brown said.
“One individual can’t do this investigation,” Brown said. He likened the investigations to homicide cases, requiring the coordinating of search warrants and court motions, and communicating with media and families.
At 60 cases per year, an office without proper funding runs the risk of being overly slow or not delivering quality investigations, he said, adding: “This becomes an enormous task.”
The governor is committed to finding the money to properly fund an office, said Sonja Hallum, senior policy adviser for Inslee who worked with the task force.
The governor’s office also will soon issue a report with the task force’s recommendations to set up a statewide agency, Hallum said, and legislation is being drafted.
While the details are still being finalized, “What I can say is that the majority of task force members were clear that they wanted an independent prosecution as well as an independent investigation,” wrote Hallum in an email.
Attorney General Bob Ferguson supports an early draft of the report’s recommendations, spokesperson Brionna Aho wrote in an email. Ferguson will also request legislation to require the collection and reporting of statewide data on “all use of deadly force incidents,” Aho wrote.