OLYMPIA — When state House lawmakers earlier this month passed a bill that creates a clear standard for when police officers can use physical force, DeVitta Briscoe said it felt like a victory moment in a football game.
“Like how you see in a touchdown, I screamed in my living room,” said Briscoe, the sister of Che Taylor, who was shot and killed by Seattle police in 2016. The 47-year-old resident of Milton, Pierce County, is a member of the Washington Coalition for Police Accountability, which is pushing for changes to policing laws this year, and is acting director of another group, Not This Time, which advocates against police violence.
Democratic state lawmakers and Gov. Jay Inslee promised a slew of changes to policing laws and accountability standards after last year’s social-justice protests erupted across America and Washington state over the killings of people of color by police.
In the wake of those protests and killings — including the death of Manuel Ellis last March at the hands of Tacoma police — the Legislature has advanced several bills that could fundamentally reshape the use of force by police.
A sampling of the bills that have passed either the House or Senate: one to ban chokeholds, neck restraints and no-knock warrants, another to strengthen the ability to investigate and decertify officers for misconduct and a third to create an independent office to investigate law enforcement use of deadly force.
Some of the bills have received bipartisan support and have been met with approval by law enforcement. Others have met resistance and passed largely or wholly along party lines in the Democratic-controlled House and Senate.
With this year’s legislative session a little past halfway over, it remains to be seen whether those and other bills will clear the Legislature and land on Inslee’s desk.
The debate between citizens, lawmakers and law enforcement makes for “a challenging balance,” said Steve Strachan, executive director of the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs (WASPC).
Strachan said it’s difficult to find “the right reforms to increase community trust, and then balancing that with ensuring that we have good, engaged policing.”
Despite their successes, community advocates and Democratic lawmakers have also seen pieces of the agenda fall away. A bill failed that would have authorized the Attorney General’s Office to independently prosecute police misconduct. Another that stalled would have created a path for people hurt by police to bring civil suits if their state constitutional rights were violated.
Even some of the bills that passed have been slimmed down. Language banning tear gas and unleashed police dogs was stripped out of the legislation prohibiting chokeholds and neck restraints.
And a provision that would have removed criminal liability protections for officers using deadly force in House Bill 1310, which new creates use-of-force standards, was removed before it passed the House.
“We were disappointed that the criminal-liability standard was removed from 1310,” said Briscoe. “We’re not getting everything that we want, but we get excited to see our lawmakers really committed to listening to us and listening to our concerns.”
Here’s a look at what has passed and what has stalled.
Bills that have advanced:
House Bill 1054: Would prohibit law enforcement from using chokeholds, neck restraints and “no-knock” warrants. The original version sponsored by Rep. Jesse Johnson, D-Federal Way would also have prohibited the use of tear gas, firearms suppressors and the use of police dogs. It would establish statewide policies on vehicle pursuits and some restrictions on tear gas, and creates a task force to recommend policies on using police dogs.
House Bill 1310: Also sponsored by Johnson, this legislation is intended to create a clear statewide standard for when officers can use physical force and deadly force. The original version also removed criminal liability protections for officers using deadly force, but that provision was removed.
Senate Bill 5051: Sponsored by Sen. Jamie Pedersen, D-Seattle, it would expand the Washington state Criminal Justice Training Commission’s capability to conduct investigations of police misconduct and suspend or revoke a law enforcement officer’s license.
House Bill 1267: Sponsored by Debra Entenman, D-Kent, it would create an Office of Independent Investigations housed within the governor’s office. The office would be able to investigate any incident where a law enforcement, corrections or juvenile detention officer uses deadly force after July 1, 2022.
Senate Bill 5259: Sponsored by Sen. T’wina Nobles, D-Fircrest and requested by the Attorney General’s Office, the bill directs law enforcement agencies to begin reporting use-of-force instances and details like the location, date and time, and the race and ethnicity of both the officer and the affected person.
Senate Bill 5055: Sponsored by Sen. Joe Nguyen, D-White Center, the bill sets a procedure to select arbitrators for grievance arbitration involving law enforcement personnel. The bill is intended to “reduce potential for abuse in the police arbitration process & increase transparency to the public.” wrote Nguyen in a tweet.
Senate Bill 5066: Sponsored by Sen. Manka Dhingra, D-Redmond, it would require officers to intervene if they witness another officer using excessive force. Officers would also be required to report what they saw to a supervisor.
Bills that stalled:
House Bill 1507: Sponsored by Entenman, it would have authorized the state Attorney General’s Office to investigate and prosecute criminal deadly force by officers. This proposal has been considered one of the more difficult ones to get consensus on. Entenman said recently she’s continuing to bring groups together on the issue and hopes to advance legislation next year.
House Bill 1202: This bill would provide a cause of action for people to seek damages in state civil court in cases where someone was injured by police misconduct. The bill, which would have allowed awards of injunctive and declaratory relief and attorney fees, didn’t get a floor vote in the House.
House Bill 1203: This proposal would require jurisdictions with a law enforcement agency of 15 or more officers to create a community oversight board by Jan. 1, 2025. The bill did not get a House floor vote by the date it needed one, and Johnson, who is sponsoring the bill, has said it faces an uphill battle but that he continues to work on it.
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