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Initiative targets state’s ability to charge police who use deadly force

Bryson Chaplin (in wheelchair) and his brother, Andre Thompson (second from left) gather with their mother, Crystal Chaplin (center) and supporters at Woodruff Park in west Olympia before a protest march into downtown Olympia on the anniversary of the police shooting of the two men in Olympia on Saturday, May 21, 2016.
Bryson Chaplin (in wheelchair) and his brother, Andre Thompson (second from left) gather with their mother, Crystal Chaplin (center) and supporters at Woodruff Park in west Olympia before a protest march into downtown Olympia on the anniversary of the police shooting of the two men in Olympia on Saturday, May 21, 2016. Staff file, 2016

An Olympia woman is leading the charge for an initiative that would change Washington’s legal protections for law enforcement officers who use deadly force.

Initiative 873 focuses on amending a clause that provides what initiative organizers call a “foolproof shield” against prosecution.

Also known as the “John T. Williams Bill,” the initiative is named after a Native American man who was killed by a Seattle police officer in 2010 while carrying only a carving knife and a piece of wood. The officer, Ian Burke, was not charged with a crime.

I-873 targets language in the current state law that exempts officers from criminal liability if they use deadly force “without malice and with a good faith belief.”

Initiative backers contend that “malice is a state of mind and cannot be proved.” Dictionaries define malice as the intention or desire to cause harm.

I-873 needs about 250,000 valid signatures by Dec. 30 to put it before the Legislature during the 2017 session. If that happens and the Legislature rejects the initiative, it would go straight to state voters on a general election ballot.

Olympia resident Lisa Hayes is running the statewide initiative campaign under the organization Washington for Good Policing and said about 25,000 signatures have been gathered so far. She said the initiative would remove a nearly impossible hurdle for prosecuting officers.

“Taking out those words has a tremendous impact,” she said of the term “malice.” “By taking those words out, you put the investigative onus on what the officer did and not what the officer was thinking.”

Thurston County Prosecutor Jon Tunheim said removing the malice language in the state law could make a difference in cases in which an officer has acted improperly. In most cases, though, officers have acted in legitimate self-defense after using every alternative to avoid deadly force, he said.

“I personally don’t think that removing ‘malice’ would change our analysis much, but it does make a significant public policy statement,” he said. “I don’t want to raise an expectation that all of a sudden we’re going to start charging officers for using deadly force.”

Tunheim opposes removing the “good faith” wording in the law, noting that the decision to use deadly force is often made in the heat of the moment.

“The good faith part is different,” he said. “The policy reason for having that phrase is to protect the officer who makes a genuine mistake.”

Since 1986, when the malice standard was enacted, only one officer has been prosecuted for using deadly force. That case involved former Everett police officer Troy Meade, who was charged with second-degree murder and manslaughter in 2009 after fatally shooting Niles Meservey. Meade was acquitted based on the malice clause.

The Seattle Times has reported that 213 people were killed by police in Washington between 2005 and 2014. Human rights organization Amnesty International reports that Washington is the only state that requires prosecutors to meet the malice standard to convict law enforcement officers in a deadly force case.

Supporters of I-873 include Not This Time, a group formed by the family of Che Taylor, who was shot and killed by a Seattle police officer last February. Other supporters include Justice for Jackie, a group formed after a Tacoma police officer shot and killed Puyallup tribal member Jacqueline Salyers in January.

In Olympia, the families of Andre Thompson and Bryson Chaplin have joined the effort. In May 2015, Thompson and Chaplin were shot, but not killed, by Olympia police officer Ryan Donald after he responded to a report of attempted shoplifting and assault. Donald was not charged, but Thompson and Chaplin face assault charges in court.

“This initiative is not anti-police. It’s pro-community,” said Andre Taylor of Not This Time, who told The Olympian that the law needs more room for police accountability. “When this initiative passes, I will be able to grieve not just for my brother, but for many people who are part of this coalition who have found themselves in the same place I’m in. This is just a beginning for us.”

I-873 has been endorsed by Seattle Mayor Ed Murray, Congressman Adam Smith (D-District 9), and Olympia City Councilman Jim Cooper.

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