A deal would move legislators past years of gridlock over a statute that makes it almost impossible for prosecutors to bring charges, even if an officer is deemed to have committed a wrongful killing.
OLYMPIA — Lawmakers are moving forward with a deal that would change state law regarding officers who use deadly force.
The legislation would move legislators past years of gridlock over a statute that makes it almost impossible for prosecutors to bring charges, even if an officer is deemed to have committed a wrongful killing.
Spurred by inaction in Olympia and a continuing string of high-profile police shootings, community advocates in December handed in enough signatures to put an initiative to change the use-of-force law before the Legislature this session.
The Legislature had been widely expected to take no action on that measure, Initiative 940, which would send it to the November ballot.
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Now, community advocates and several law-enforcement groups have reached a compromise that would keep the issue off the ballot.
As part of the deal, lawmakers would approve I-940 along with a separate bill that amends some of the initiative’s language, said Rep. Roger Goodman, D-Kirkland, chairman of the House Public Safety Committee.
Killings by police have surged over the past decade in Washington. But it’s nearly impossible to criminally charge police in state courts with the illegal use of deadly force on the job. Read our investigation.
That proposal, House Bill 3003, was introduced last week.
Because the bill would change an initiative, passage would require a two-thirds vote in the House and Senate.
Currently, a law-enforcement officer can’t be convicted of a crime for using deadly force if she or he acted in “good faith” and “without malice,” or what the law describes as “evil intent.”
I-940 would change the law to a more detailed, multipart threshold of “good faith” that takes into account what a “reasonable officer” might have done under the circumstances.
It also would consider an officer’s intentions to determine if he or she acted in good faith, as well as mandate more mental-health and de-escalation training for officers.
“If we are able to enact this now … we can avoid a contentious, adversarial fight on the ballot that would worsen relationships between police and the community,” Goodman said.
To pass, there needs to be “total agreement” between the community advocates and law-enforcement groups, said Sen. Jamie Pedersen, D-Seattle.
The agreement removes the word “malice” from the law as it applies to the use of deadly force. And it provides a new definition for “good faith” that community advocates and several law-enforcement groups have agreed to, he said.
“The ‘good-faith’ test will be much more workable under our clarifying bill,” Goodman said.
The new version would still include additional law-enforcement training, he said.
“Even though it isn’t perfect, it is a great outcome,” said Steve Strachan, executive director of the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs.
The measure was advanced unanimously by the House Public Safety Committee Tuesday and a floor vote in the chamber was expected later Tuesday. It was scheduled for a committee vote in the Senate Wednesday.
Not every police group in the state backs the bill but the Fraternal Order of Police, an influential union of front-line law enforcement officers, and other powerful police organizations are supporting it.
Goodman said that’s enough to get the legislation to Gov. Jay Inslee’s desk before the legislative session ends Thursday.
Heather Villanueva, a leader for the I-940 campaign De-Escalate Washington, celebrated the deal, saying it meant it would take effect sooner than if approved by voters in November.
“We want to save lives,” she told reporters. “We want to make sure everybody is safer.”
A 2015 report by The Seattle Times found that 213 people had been killed by police in Washington between 2005 and 2014 — but just one officer was criminally charged.
In that case, an Everett police officer was acquitted by a jury.
The officer had been charged with second-degree murder and manslaughter after fatally shooting a drunken man in 2009 through the rear window of the man’s car.
High-profile shootings by white officers of African Americans and other minorities — including the deaths in Seattle of Che Taylor and Charleena Lyles — have kept the issue at the forefront.
Legislators could also pass an altered version of the initiative and send both proposals to the ballot.
But under the proposed deal, lawmakers would approve the initiative, and then pass the bill amending it with the agreed-upon changes.