I-940: Police use of force laws must evolve

Initiative 940 is a bridge that goes only part way to a better state law governing police use of force in Washington.

Unfortunately, it’s going to take a lot more work on both sides of the divide on community policing to get the law right. That appears to be the reality if voters approve I-940 or if they reject the proposed training and use of force reforms in the Nov. 6 election.

Please blame the Legislature for any confusion here.

We’ll try to sort that out for you — including why we conditionally support this measure.

Our caveat for backing I-940 is that, if it passes, state legislators must still act again in January to amend this initiative in a way the Legislature tried to amend it in the spring.

I-940 needs to pass in order to keep pressure on lawmakers to get rid of current law, which is uniquely lenient among the 50 states in its treatment of officers who use force recklessly.

Still if I-940 passes on Nov. 6, it needs tweaking to ensure that common sense dictates when and how an officer must help injured persons at a crime scene. An officer’s primary duties are to public safety but also to staying alive.

A bipartisan majority of lawmakers approved House Bill 3003’s compromise, which dealt with this possible flaw. But HB 3003 was tossed out by a Thurston County judge because lawmakers used the wrong process to adopt the initiative and then amend it in March.

In a word, legislators botched the job by amending the initiative before actually voting on it. This move appeared to result from good intentions. but legislators should have put both I-940 and the compromise as side-by-side alternatives on the ballot.

Dumb move. Fast forward to now.

Police groups are divided on I-940 as written, although a clear majority agree the state law as written is too lenient.

We think that both I-940 and its “compromise cousin” offer a two-step good-faith exception that makes sense — on the key question of justified use of force by police. The reform says that an officer must both believe he or she is reasonably in enough danger to justify lethal force and that another reasonable officer would act the same way.

Mike Solan, a Seattle police officer and leader of Coalition for a Safer Washington that raised funds to fight against I-940, dislikes the malice standard. But he is more afraid that I-940 will put doubt in officers’ minds before they make split-second decisions in very dangerous situations.

And this, Solan fears, will endanger officers and reduce public safety.

Most police groups are against I-940, including the Washington Association of Police and Sheriffs (WA-COPS), the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs, Seattle-area police guilds and others. But some police groups favor it — including the Black Law Enforcement Association of Washington, the King County sheriff and two former Seattle police chiefs.

But some I-940 critics such as WA-COPS want to work in 2019 with I-940 sponsors to re-pass the compromise bill in the Legislature.

All of which leaves a confusing situation for voters.

But we think flaw in current law is worse than the vague language in I-940. Currently Washington law requires evidence that an officer acted with malice before there can be a criminal conviction — even in cases of clearly reckless shootings. That creates an unwelcome appearance that police have a license to shoot people.

Leslie Cushman of Olympia with the De-Escalate Washington campaign — which is backed by tribes, labor unions and advocates for minority communities — argues that more than two-dozen states have a good faith standard.

Cushman, an attorney, got involved in this issue after two black men were shot and injured by an Olympia officer — justifiably, as it was ultimately determined — in May 2015.

Too many cities have had controversial shootings, and I-940 (and the compromise version) would rebuild some trust by beefing up training requirements for police. It would increase training already given to many in how to deal with mentally ill offenders and to “de-escalate” dangerous situations without using lethal force.

With the rising numbers of conflicts on our streets involving mentally ill persons, this should be an easy choice. We’re not convinced police get enough training — except in cities like Olympia or Seattle where city leaders have either demanded or paid for it.

Still, I-940 needs fine-tuning if voters pass it. One section in I-940’s says an officer has a duty to render first aid. That language has been interpreted by police groups as potentially putting them in conflict with a need to secure a scene, apprehend suspects, protect others and stay alive themselves.

That potential flaw in I-940 is why we — and also Jon Tunheim, Thurston County prosecuting attorney — are giving support to I-940 on condition that the flaws are fixed.

A vote for I-940 keeps up pressure on lawmakers to fix state law.