When a police officer feels he must use deadly force on the job in Washington state, the shooting of a suspect can be justified more easily here than in other states. The key factor for prosecutors reviewing such a shooting for is whether the officer acts with malice or evil intent.
Washington is the only state in the nation with this standard, which in practice is so hard to prove that the successful prosecution of a police shooting is virtually impossible.
A Seattle Times report last September counted 213 fatal shootings by police during 2005-14, of which only one led to criminal charges. In that lone case, the Everett police officer was acquitted of second-degree murder after he shot a drunken man through the suspects’ rear car window. The police department later fired the officer for violating department policy.
Clearly, many police shootings are warranted and officers are placed in hugely difficult situations. The Times report found that five of every six shootings involved an armed suspect.
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Nonetheless, a disproportionate share of shooting victims were African American or other people of color, raising questions about police bias and stirring suspicion and fear in minority communities.
More recent police shootings across the U.S. and in this state – including the shooting of an Hispanic man who threw rocks at Pasco police last year – are prompting a closer, necessary look at the use of deadly force.
The Black Alliance of Thurston County has led the charge in 2016 for changing state law after the shooting and wounding of two black men in Olympia last May.
We support a reform of the state law. Washington lawmakers should clarify what is an appropriate use of force and how to align state law with civil rights protections and laws in other states.
Three bills being heard today (Feb. 3) deal with the issue. Two bills are scheduled for 1:30 p.m. in the House Public Safety Committee and deal with the use-of-force question in different ways.
House Bill 2907 repeals the state’s presumption that an officer is in the right unless there is evidence of malicious intent.
HB 2908 takes a more measured approach, calling for a task force to return in 2017 with recommendations. Sponsored by Rep. Cindy Ryu, D-Shoreline, HB 2908 makes clear that deadly force is sometimes necessary but that current law goes “above and beyond that which is reasonable and justifiable.”
SB 6621 is sponsored by Democratic Sen. Karen Fraser of Thurston County and it asks the Washington Institute for Public Policy to convene a task force on policing and the use of deadly force. This is being heard at 5:30 p.m. in the Senate Law and Justice Committee.
The approaches of Ryu and Fraser offer the best chance of passing legislation this year. Both would keep officers and those who seek greater police accountability at the table. What’s needed is a balanced way that protects both the police and the public.
Police groups are understandably defensive, believing the law should stand as it is. That is a major reason further discussion is needed on where to draw the line.
In the end, Washington’s law needs balance that protects police against spurious claims and suspects from excessive force.