Politics & Government

Lawmakers ask for changes to state’s use of deadly force statute

Investigators comb the scene of a May 21, 2015 officer involved shooting. Two young men were shot by an Olympia police officer during an altercation in west Olympia.
Investigators comb the scene of a May 21, 2015 officer involved shooting. Two young men were shot by an Olympia police officer during an altercation in west Olympia. Staff photographer

Some some lawmakers worry that a Washington state law makes it impossible to hold accountable police officers who unjustly shoot people.

Two measures introduced in the Legislature this week aim to change that.

In Washington, police officers can’t be convicted of using unnecessary force unless a prosecutor can prove that they acted with malice. A bill introduced by Rep. Luis Moscoso, D-Mountlake Terrace, would remove that standard — which has been on the books since 1986. According to an Amnesty International report, Washington is the only state that requires prosecutors to meet this standard in order to convict a police officer in a deadly force case.

“I’m coming to learn that it’s nearly impossible to prosecute law enforcement in the state of Washington,” Moscoso said.

“I don’t expect this bill is going to go very far this year, but we need to have this discussion,” he said.

I’m coming to learn that it’s nearly impossible to prosecute law enforcement in the state of Washington.

Rep. Luis Moscoso, D-Mountlake Terrace

But the bill is being met with resistance from the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs (WASPC). Director Mitch Barker said that he wouldn’t support the bill — and neither would members of the organization.

He said that as part of their jobs, police officers must enter dangerous situations.

“It would be difficult to go into that situation knowing that you could be prosecuted criminally and civilly if you have to use deadly force,” Barker said.

A second bill, introduced by Rep. Cindy Ryu, D-Shoreline, takes a different approach to reforming the state’s deadly force statute. House Bill 2908 would create a task force that would make recommendations to the Legislature on policing.

Both bills were prompted in large part by the Black Alliance of Thurston County, an organization that formed in the wake of a May 2015 officer-involved shooting in Olympia. Two young black men, brothers Andre Thompson and Bryson Chaplin, were shot by a police officer during an altercation in west Olympia.

The Thurston County Prosecutor’s Office decided not to charge Officer Ryan Donald of the Olympia Police Department. Thompson and Chaplin are facing assault charges.

Black Alliance leaders announced in November that they would seek changes to the state’s deadly force statute during the 2016 legislative session.

“This is about public accountability,” said Black Alliance co-founder Karen Johnson. “When a police officer uses force and takes a life, there should be a way for them to be held accountable.”

When a police officer uses force and takes a life, there should be a way for them to be held accountable.

Karen Johnson, co-founder of the Black Alliance of Thurston County

In the weeks leading up to session, the organization approached the Legislature’s Members of Color caucus with a draft bill.

Moscoso, who serves on the House Public Safety Committee, said he’s been interested in reforming the deadly force statute since a work session with Sue Rohr, former King County Sheriff and current director of the Washington State Criminal Justice Training Commission.

The work session took place in March, only a few weeks after Antonio Zambrano-Montes was shot and killed by Pasco police.

“People started to ask, ‘Was this justifiable homicide?’ ” Moscoso said. “Now, a year later, we’ve learned that in Washington, it was.”

He said that since the work session, he had been waiting for someone to come forward with a bill changing that state law. And that’s what the Black Alliance did.

Moscoso signed on, along with five co-sponsors — all Democrats.

House Bill 2907 would remove the malice standard, and instead allow officers to use deadly force if they believe there is an “imminent threat” of death or serious bodily harm to themselves or another person.

Johnson said the language change would be good for law enforcement, prosecutors and Washington communities.

“The bill really clarifies for police officers, prosecutors and the public when use of force is justifiable,” Johnson said. “What we’re hoping to do is build public trust and police accountability.”

But that’s not how Barker sees it.

He said he worries that the bill would, in actuality, remove clarity from the state’s deadly-force statute. It would be hard to define what constitutes an “imminent threat.”

Making it easier to charge police officers criminally would also deter good, qualified officers from working in Washington state, he said.

“I don’t think the standard needs to be changed,” Barker said. “I think that in Washington state, law enforcement officers tend to make the right decision. We are human, so mistakes can be made from time to time. But what I think people forget is that this really is a split-second decision.”

I think that in Washington state, law enforcement officers tend to make the right decision.

Mitch Barker, director of the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs

Ryu, also part of the Members of Color caucus, said her bill also was the result of lobbying by the Black Alliance. But instead of putting forward a bill that would change state statute, she opted to put forward a measure that would bring all of the stakeholders to the table for discussion.

“We all acknowledge that the system is broken,” Ryu said. “Everyone needs to be protected. But I think this needs to be a discussion.”

Her bill would create a task force comprised of representatives from each of the Legislature’s caucuses, WASPC, the Washington State Patrol, the Criminal Justice Training Commission, the Washington Association of Prosecuting Attorneys, the Washington Defender Association, the Washington State Association of Counties, the Association of Washington Cities, the ACLU, the NAACP, One America, the Attorney General’s office, and the state commissions on Hispanic, Asian Pacific American, African American and Indian affairs.

The task force would make recommendations to the Legislature in 2017 regarding deadly force, body cameras and other policing issues. Members also would review data collected under Senate Bill 6294 — also pending this legislative session. The bill, sponsored by Sen. Bob Hasegawa, D-Seattle, would require that all justifiable homicide and deadly use of force cases be reported to the state. The bill was referred to the Senate Law and Justice Committee on Jan. 14, but no hearings have been scheduled.

Both Ryu and Moscoso’s bills are scheduled to be heard by the House Public Safety Committee at 1:30 p.m. Feb. 3.

Amelia Dickson: 360-754-5445, @Amelia_Oly

  Comments