The issue of police accountability has been playing out in the Washington state Legislature over the last two weeks with bills being discussed in the House of Representatives and Senate. Discussions continue Monday, as a bill that would compel officers to intervene and stop excessive force by other officers goes before the Senate Ways & Means Committee.
Under new legislation introduced in the Senate, police officers may no longer be allowed to be bystanders to bad behavior from their colleagues.
Senate Bill 5066 would require any police officer who witnesses another officer engaging or attempting to engage in excessive force to intervene and try to stop it, or risk suspension or decertification.
Washington state has never decertified an officer for using excessive force.
Senate Bill 5066 is part of a broader push for police accountability in the Legislature, led by Democratic lawmakers and community advocates, after the deaths of people of color at the hands of police.
The bill’s prime sponsor, Sen. Manka Dhingra, D-Redmond, said the bill was partially inspired by the killing of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police in May, where “we saw officers standing around and not intervening.” However, police brutality is not something that is unheard of in the state of Washington, she said. She referenced local cases such as the killing of Manuel Ellis in Tacoma, and others.
Democratic legislators have also sponsored House Bill 1054, which would prohibit police tactics like chokeholds and neck restraints, as well as tear gas, no-knock warrants and the use of military gear.
On Thursday, House Bill 1310, which seeks to narrow the set of acceptable circumstances for the use of physical and deadly force by police, will be voted on by the House Committee on Public Safety. Also on Thursday, a House committee is scheduled to vote on House Bill 1267, which would establish an office within the Office of the Governor to investigate potential criminal uses of deadly force by police officers, in-custody deaths and sexual assaults.
But the issue of excessive force is what has garnered much attention from law enforcement, and from activists like Sakara Remmu, who is a member of the Washington Black Lives Matter Alliance. Remmu said excessive force does not always end in death.
Twenty years ago, Remmu said she called the police when a fight broke out at a restaurant near her house. After the scene was cleared, she went out to speak to an officer.
“As soon as he saw me, he grabbed me by the back of my neck and threw me on the hood of his car, without a word,” Remmu said. “I was pregnant. His partner did nothing.”
“That damaged me,” she said.
Remmu testified last week in favor of SB 5066 at its first public hearing, and mentioned racial targeting in the use of force. The bill is a step in the right direction, she said, but will not fully address the systemic racism that exists in law enforcement agencies across the state.
Dhingra told the Senate Law & Justice Committee that she believes most officers are trying to do the right thing. She said this bill would help them to continue to do so by putting them in a position to call out wrongdoing.
“We have to make sure the culture does not enable bad officers to continue,” Dhingra said, “so this is making sure we set up policies, procedures, training, to empower those good officers to do the right thing.”
That includes a reporting mechanism so that “these things don’t just get brushed under the carpet,” she said. Officers would be required to report any wrongdoing they see from another officer to that officer’s supervisor, and would be protected from discipline or retaliation.
In 2018, lawmakers and voters passed Initiative 940 that removed a decades-old barrier that had made it nearly impossible to bring criminal charges against law enforcement officers deemed to have used deadly force wrongfully. It also required police to receive de-escalation and mental health training, and removed the requirement to prove an officer acted with malice to be convicted.
James Schrimpsher, representing the Washington Fraternal Order of Police, also spoke in support of SB 5066 last week, saying the stipulations are already de facto in most law enforcement agencies around Washington.
He said that the vast majority of police officers already intervene in any wrongdoing that they see, and said “it’s in our DNA.”
He said that he told an officer about the bill the morning he was to testify, and the officer asked him, “isn’t that already a thing?”
“And I said yes, it is already a thing, we’re just codifying it,” Schrimpsher said.
Officers would go through Active Bystandership for Law Enforcement training, but the specifics of how intervening will look will be up to local law enforcement agencies. Though no one spoke in opposition to the bill, it was modified to clarify that the responsibility to intervene would only apply to “easily-identifiable” officers who are on duty.
Dhingra said the slew of law enforcement bills introduced this session will “work together to create this system where we are holding our officers to a high ethical standard.”