Washington’s law on the use of force by police officers needs to be changed in 2018. It is wrong that a commissioned police officer in our state can negligently and recklessly shoot and kill a civilian but never be convicted of a crime.
The law — the only one of its kind in the U.S. — requires evidence that an officer acted in malice. Malice or “evil intent” is so hard to prove it’s never been done since the state’s law was adopted a few decades ago — even in cases where an officer’s actions were negligent, egregious and resulted in the officer’s firing.
That is why many civil rights advocates, county prosecutors and some police chiefs — including those in Thurston County — favor a more sensible law that holds officers more accountable but also shields them from criminal liability if they act in good faith.
On Thursday, backers of Initiative 940 filed their petitions with an estimated 360,000 voter signatures in support of changing the law.
If enacted, the initiative to the Legislature would replace the “malice” standard with a two-part test — whether the officer acted in good faith and whether a reasonable officer would have done the same.
A “good faith” standard could actually help police build credibility with the communities they serve — especially in communities where the perception among too many residents is that officers won’t be held accountable.
The I-940 signature drive arose after a series of U.S. and Washington police shootings in recent years and after the Legislature failed to change the law in each of its last two sessions. I-940, aided by paid signature gatherers, was backed by a coalition of rights groups and individuals led by De-Escalate Washington.
The goal of I-940 is increased public safety, according to sponsors. The measure proposes to require training of all Washington police officers in de-escalation techniques, first aid, and responding to mental health crises. It also requires that officers render first aid on the scene.
I-940 goes a bit further than what county prosecutors, including Thurston County Prosecuting Attorney Jon Tunheim were suggesting as a legislative compromise for defining “good faith” earlier this year.
Olympia and Lacey police are among the leaders in obtaining the de-escalation training, but it has been a strain for police agencies and city councils to obtain the money needed.
It is true that police officers have been subjected to attacks by armed citizens. Such unjustified attacks are just as abhorrent as an unjustified, negligent killing of an unarmed citizen by police who have better options, but they do not justify the malice standard.
If police and lawmakers have a reasonable alternative to I-940 — perhaps one that provides more help for local police agencies — they can always offer it to voters.
Olympia Police Chief Ronnie Roberts secured money from his city council for additional training after the 2015 shooting of two African American men by a white officer who later said he feared for his life when he fired his gun.
The officer was cleared of wrongdoing, and the two injured suspects were eventually convicted of assault on the officer. Initiative 940’s standards, if in effect in 2015, likely would not have changed the outcome in the Olympia case.
A minimum of 259,622 valid voter signatures are needed to formally send I-940 to the Legislature, which is almost certain to happen because of the large number of signatures collected. The next step for I-940 is a random sampling and checking of petition signatures by state elections officials.
Because the measure is an initiative to the Legislature, state lawmakers have few options. They can adopt the proposal, put an alternative on the fall ballot with I-940, or let I-940 proceed alone to voters in November.
South Sound lawmakers, including Rep. Beth Doglio, D-Olympia, pushed for a “good faith” law last year. Doglio said during a meeting last month with The Olympian Editorial Board that she sees no reason for lawmakers to offer an alternative for the ballot.
Still, legislative committees should give full airing to this measure in their upcoming session.
Andre Taylor, who is chair of De-Escalate Washington, lost his brother, Che, in a Seattle police shooting in February 2016. Two officers later testified at an inquest that they believed Che Taylor, a felon, was pulling a gun. Most jurors sided with the police.
Andre Taylor told The Olympian he wants accountability for officers but also improved training to reduce the risk of shootings before another tragedy happens.
I-940 would do that. Just as importantly, it would redraw the line between justifiable and unjustifiable police shootings.