As police reform advocates look to sustain this summer’s public outrage, the state Legislature is taking a second look at overhauling Washington’s peace officer decertification system.
That certification is required to be an officer in Washington, and revoking it can permanently take away a cop’s badge and gun.
But due to weaknesses in the process, the state rarely takes that action, decertifying an average of 13 per year of the about 11,000 officers statewide, according to a recent Seattle Times investigation.
A proposal being circulated by a key lawmaker would give more power to civilian overseers than law enforcement representatives, and would expand the criteria for decertification to include the use of excessive force — which the state has never decertified an officer for.
Under Washington’s current law, police can be decertified only for a narrow set of circumstances. Often, the process drags out for years after serious misconduct, and the majority of officers under review are able to keep their licenses, as The Times investigation found. Critics say the system is designed more to protect officers’ careers than to hold them accountable.
“It is important that when we have officers who have abused the public trust that we have an efficient mechanism to quickly eliminate their ability to have a taxpayer-funded badge and gun,” said bill sponsor Sen. Jamie Pedersen, D-Seattle, chair of the Senate Law and Justice Committee.
If the changes take effect, Washington would be among the states with the most robust decertification systems, said Roger Goldman, an emeritus law professor at St. Louis University.
“It’s certainly much more progressive, and it’s in the direction many states are going,” said Goldman. “Washington has a long way to make up because its law was so narrow.”
The bill would change who hears decertification cases — reducing the number of law enforcement representatives and replacing them with citizens, plus a police chief or sheriff — and make a similar shift on the state’s training commission board.
“The community’s perspective in how officers should be trained and how officers should be decertified has been a part of the equation that has been missing in the traditional approach,” said Anne Levinson, a former Seattle police oversight official and municipal court judge who helped draft the bill.
Police accountability experts and the bill’s backers anticipate some union opposition, which helped end an effort to strengthen state decertification laws six years ago. The California Legislature, too, failed to pass decertification reform in September after opposition from police unions.
Teresa Taylor, executive director of the Washington Council of Police & Sheriffs, said it “is extremely important to the public and the individual officers that we have a system that protects the due process rights of officers.”
On average, decertification cases now take about two years before reaching some resolution, The Times investigation found, and can be scuttled altogether if an arbitrator overturns an officer’s firing. Under the new proposal, an arbitrator’s decision would not preclude the state from taking action.
The list of reasons for decertification would also be dramatically expanded to 18 separate categories, ranging from sexual harassment to tampering with evidence. Crimes committed off duty would also count.
Some offenses would trigger mandatory decertification for the first time, including use of excessive force that resulted in death or serious injury.
But reflecting the due process rights of officers, the agency would also have more leeway in its punishment, including suspension, reprimand and mandatory retraining. Today, the state is essentially limited to decertification or nothing.
Besides decertification, the bill would bolster background check requirements for law enforcement agencies hiring new officers. Police departments would have to check a national decertification index and so-called “Brady lists” of officers who have lied in an official capacity.
An agency would have to check discipline records and misconduct complaints at previous agencies, and the bill would strengthen requirements for record-keeping and transparency of police misconduct.
It would apply to peace officers, corrections officers, reserve officers, campus security at colleges and public schools, and police officers for tribal governments that request state certification.
Taylor said she had not studied the bill in detail, but she was concerned about shifting power away from local police chiefs and sheriffs to state-appointed civilians.
“There are certain decisions that are more properly placed at the local level,” she said.
The bill’s supporters say reforms have a better chance at overcoming union opposition in Olympia this year.
In June, King County’s largest labor council expelled the Seattle Police Officers Guild over resistance to racial justice reforms. The fractured labor movement, combined with the public pressure for reforms, may help, Pedersen said.
“My working assumption is that we will not have a united labor movement protecting police unions, the way that in the past has sometimes been the case,” Pedersen said.
The Legislature considered expanding reasons for decertification in 2014, but the public employee unions, aligned with rank-and-file officers, fought the measure and it never made it out of committee. It would have been the first significant change to the decertification law since it was passed in 2001.
The Senate Law and Justice Committee plans to discuss police accountability issues, including decertification, during a work session on Oct. 14.