Three years in the making: New law on police use of deadly force

Legislators are about to pass a bill that will permit officers to kill only in “good faith.”

  • Friday, January 25, 2019 11:30am
  • Opinion

In the next few days, state lawmakers will pass a bill to ensure that police are trained to use deadly force only when it’s unavoidable, and that they are prosecuted when the facts prove otherwise.

When Gov. Jay Inslee signs the new law, it will conclude an unprecedented chapter during which citizens — badged and unbadged — worked together on change they hope will defuse tense situations involving police.

All it took was three years of difficult conversations; the collection of 360,000 signatures and $3.2 million to get Initiative 940 in front of voters; three months of an unwanted election campaign, thanks to the state Supreme Court; 1,834,579 votes cast to pass the ballot measure; and two weeks of fine-tuning this year.

“The process that you guys have engaged in is nothing short of revolutionary … revolutionary listening, revolutionary hearing, revolutionary cooperating and collaborating,” Sen. Jesse Salomon, D-Shoreline, told the bill’s citizen-architects at a Jan. 15 hearing. “It moves me. It moves my heart.”

Rep. Roger Goodman, D-Kirkland, knows their journey well. He was one of a handful of lawmakers who traveled with them the entire way.

Not long ago, Washington law provided cops pretty much the best protection in the country against prosecution if they killed someone in the line of duty.

In 2016, Goodman helped lead a task force of those who write state laws, those who enforce them and those upon whom they are enforced. Their mission was to create a framework to ensure a fair and just review process when a cop takes a life — and that the cop won’t be criminally charged for justified use of force.

When the day arrived to act on recommendations, members did a lot of talking at one another rather than with one another. The dialogue was sometimes impolite and emotional. There were insinuations of racism and cop-blaming. What resulted was a split decision in the panel’s final report, no revisions in law during the 2017 legislative session and, then, Initiative 940 last fall.

In early 2018, in hopes of averting a messy electoral battle, Goodman set out to solder cooperation between law enforcement groups and social justice organizations through diplomacy. It worked. An agreement was reached on language to iron out wrinkles in the initiative to clarify what will occur if an officer takes a life.

I-940 ended up on the ballot anyway, but those agreed changes are now at the heart of House Bill 1064, which was slated to possibly on the House floor Thursday, after the Reporter’s deadline, and in front of the Senate next week.

But this is not the end of the story.

In the next chapter, everyone’s got to figure out how to make it work.

The bill directs the state Criminal Justice Training Commission to develop new curricula covering a wider range of crises which officers might encounter, with de-escalation a focus. The goal is to ingrain alternatives to physical force in every officer’s decision-making.

The legislation also will require that an independent investigation be done pretty much every time police use of force results in a death or substantial injury.

And it sets a new test for deciding when an officer can be prosecuted.

Under the bill, an officer would not be held criminally liable if he or she acted in “good faith.” Under this standard, a prosecutor would consider “all the facts, circumstances, and information known to the officer at the time” and determine whether another officer in a similar situation “would have believed that the use of deadly force was necessary to prevent death or serious physical harm to the officer or another individual.”

Goodman knows there’s a lot of hard work ahead.

“The winding road continues with a different spirit,” Goodman said. “We’re really building peace, trust and understanding. This is a big win and a model for the nation.”

Jerry Cornfield: 360-352-8623; jcornfield@herald net.com. Twitter: @dospueblos

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