Politics & Government

Police use of deadly force should require ‘belief of imminent threat,’ proposal says

Karen Johnson of the Black Alliance of Thurston County addresses the legislative task force on Use of Deadly Force in Community Policing during a meeting at the state Criminal Justice Training Center in Burien, on July 26. Johnson is backing a proposal that would go beyond the task force’s recommendations in altering state law on the use of deadly force by police.
Karen Johnson of the Black Alliance of Thurston County addresses the legislative task force on Use of Deadly Force in Community Policing during a meeting at the state Criminal Justice Training Center in Burien, on July 26. Johnson is backing a proposal that would go beyond the task force’s recommendations in altering state law on the use of deadly force by police. phaley@thenewstribune.com

A task force already has recommended making it easier to charge police officers who use deadly force in Washington state, but civil rights groups, including the Black Alliance of Thurston County, want the Legislature to go a step further.

Washington’s law is unique in the country in how it shields officers who use deadly force from prosecution unless it can be proved they acted with “malice” and without “good faith.”

Proponents of reform say the statute sets a standard that is nearly impossible to meet and is uniquely protective of police. Many prosecutors say the malice standard can shield officers who recklessly or negligently kill people.

A bill filed Monday at the state Capitol would remove the malice and good faith standards as requirements for criminal prosecution, as recommended last month by a legislative task force on police use of deadly force.

On top of that, however, the proposal would require police officers to have “a reasonable belief of an imminent threat” for fatal shootings or other use of deadly force to be considered justified — a concept the task force considered, but didn’t adopt as a formal recommendation.

The bill proposed Monday would go beyond the task force recommendations by restricting when police can shoot at vehicles, and defining “necessary” force as a last-resort option, after ways to de-escalate the situation are considered.

“This is not a huge culture shift. This is what they’re supposed to be doing anyway,” said Karen Johnson, chairwoman of the Black Alliance of Thurston County, which is behind the legislation introduced Monday.

The Black Alliance formed after the shooting of two young black men by an Olympia police officer in May 2015.

Johnson, who served on the legislative task force examining the law on police use of force, said changing the current statute is a human rights issue.

The proposal, House Bill 1000, is supported by other groups, including the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington and the Tacoma-Pierce County Black Collective, according to a press release.

The bill is the first measure to be filed in advance of the 2017 legislative session that begins in January, and comes just days after Tacoma police officer Reginald “Jake” Gutierrez was fatally shot when responding to a domestic dispute.

The man who shot Gutierrez, Bruce R. Johnson II, was killed by a SWAT team member during a standoff Thursday.

Many law enforcement groups have been reluctant to support the proposed changes to the statute, including the task force’s recommendations to remove the malice and good faith standards.

The Tacoma standoff is one example of the difficult and life-threatening situations police officers face daily, said Rich Phillips, who represents the Washington Council of Police and Sheriffs on the task force.

Phillips said changing the law in a way that could cause police to hesitate in those types of encounters can endanger officers and members of the public.

“We know if someone is willing to kill a police officer, they’re probably willing to kill anybody,” Phillips said. “How many restrictions do you want to put on officers in that situation?

“How much do you want a police officer hesitating when it comes to trying to save a life?”

Newly elected state Rep. Beth Doglio, D-Olympia, said the bill “definitely recognizes that police officers have to make split-second decisions,” but emphasizes that “the sanctity of life really should be a law enforcement priority.”

Gutierrez’s fatal shooting “makes it more important to talk about it now, and to continue this dialogue,” said Doglio, who will take office in January and is sponsoring the legislation in the state House.

“Law enforcement plays such an essential role in protecting us all, and we need to make sure the public is confident in their actions,” she said.

“We think this bill does that.”

Other bills to implement recommendations of the legislative task force on policing tactics may be introduced in the coming weeks. A campaign is working to gather enough signatures to send an initiative to the Legislature that would remove the malice and good faith portions from Washington’s law.

Staff writer Walker Orenstein contributed to this report.

Melissa Santos: 360-357-0209, @melissasantos1

  Comments