There is an extraordinarily high bar to criminally prosecute police officers when they kill someone in Washington State—one that the legislature decided last week to leave in place.
State law requires prosecutors to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that officers used deadly force "with malice." The law, passed in 1986, is one of the most restrictive in the nation. When Seattle police officer Ian Birk shot and killed Native American woodcarver John T. Williams in 2010, virtually everyone was horrified, and the police department itself said Birk violated policy. But King County prosecutors declined to charge Birk because they wouldn't be able to prove that Birk acted with malicious intent.
The result of this law is that over the past decade—there have been 213 killings by police officers in this state, according to an analysis by the Seattle Times—only one officer has faced charges. No one has been convicted.
After a police shooting last year in Olympia of two unarmed black teenagers, a new group called the Black Alliance of Thurston County set out to strike the "malice" clause from state law. Based on their work, Representative Luis Moscoso (D-Mountlake Terrace) introduced HB 2907, which would have done just that.
On February 3, the House Public Safety Committee's hearing for the bill attracted an overflow crowd. Police-reform advocates from Seattle turned out in force. Mothers for Police Accountability founder Harriet Walden, Lisa Daugaard of the Community Police Commission, and Rick Williams (John T. Williams's brother) all testified in favor. Amnesty International's Jamira Burley said striking "malice" from the statute would bring Washington State in line with international human-rights law. Carlos Bratcher, head of the Black Law Enforcement Association of Washington, said the bill would provide greater "clarity" for police officers.
And Felix Vargas, a former US military officer who lives in Pasco, told the committee, "No one believes stronger in police institutions and security services than I do." Still, in light of the fatal shooting in 2015 of Antonio Zambrano-Montes as he ran away from Pasco police—for which the officers were not charged—Vargas called for the committee to pass the bill.
"You all protected the badge," said Williams, eyeing the committee members. "For five years, all this talking and no action... I can't get my brother back. But I can help the people and stand up for them."
The House Public Safety Committee, split 5–4 between Democrats and Republicans, didn't even vote on HB 2907. Democrats hold a razor-thin two-person majority over Republicans in the house. A bigger, bolder Democratic majority would have pushed it through.
"There was a lot of pressure," Moscoso told me. "And the chair [Roger Goodman (D-Kirkland)] decided not to have a vote... I'm very disappointed."
The pressure came from the law-enforcement community, including two Republican representatives on the committee who are former police officers, as well as organizations representing rank-and-file cops, police chiefs, and prosecutors. "We are not interested in the goal of... let's find a way to prosecute more officers," testified Mitch Barker, representing the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs. Goodman gave in.
Instead, two other bills related to police killings passed out of the committee. One establishes a task force to make recommendations that might modify the deadly force law. But the task force won't issue its final report until 2017. Another bill would collect and compile more data about police killings.
That means the Washington State Legislature is delaying any potential reforms for later, at a time when the Black Lives Matter movement is still going strong and Beyoncé is performing Black Power–inspired anthems at the Super Bowl. It means officers who unreasonably shoot down the people they are supposed to protect in 2016 won't get charged. Moscoso said honest talk in Olympia about institutional racism and police accountability has already been put off for way too long. This was the right moment to get rid of the "malice" clause in state law. But, he lamented, "We weren't ready for this conversation."
This article has been updated since its original publication.