The Stranger

When the state legislature found a way earlier this year to lower the criminal standard for holding a cop accountable for killing someone while also not angering the entire law enforcement community, it was hailed as a somewhat remarkable accomplishment in a usually divided arena.

Instead of shouts of Black Lives Matter versus Blue Lives Matter, there was a quite consensus that resulted in significant changes to state law.

It took years of organizing, over 350,000 signatures in a petition to the legislature, and even an appearance from a Seahawks player, but the lawmakers were eventually able to strike a compromise between police reform groups and law enforcement. Washington’s legal threshold for holding a cop criminally accountable, considered one of the most protective of police in the country, was lowered and cops across the state would be required to go through additional training for de-escalation techniques and mental health training.

Then Tim Eyman, that initiative-filing asshat from Mukilteo, came along and ruined everything.

Eyman sued the state, claiming the legislature violated the state constitution when they passed the compromised bill. His lawsuit took a strange turn through the court system, with the Supreme Court issuing overlapping opinions on Tuesday with a narrow majority, only to then appear to be reconsidering their opinion the following day.

On Thursday, the court issued what should be its final ruling: the court nullified the state’s new laws and sent the original petition, Initiative 940, back to the ballot to be voted on this November.

If voters pass the initiative the threshold for criminally holding cops accountable will be lowered, but that’s going to be a difficult fight for police reformers to win because law enforcement groups are now vowing to fight the measure.

Jeff Merrill, president of the Washington State Patrol Troopers Association, which represents over 1,000 troopers, said his organization is not supporting I-940 at the ballot. The Seattle Police Officers Guild, which represents most of the police officers in the city, has emphatically opposed the initiative in the past and isn’t likely to lend any support to it this November.

De-Escalate Washington, the police reform coalition backing the initiative, said they will still fight for the initiative during the general election, according to their Co-Chair Monisha Harrell.

“We are disappointed that the Court ruled this way but all along our campaign has been ready for November. The public has asked for these changes. We look forward to talking about the issues across the State,” Harrell said in a press release Tuesday.

In addition to lowering the threshold for holding a cop criminally accountable, I-940 would also require cops across the state to take additional training on violence de-escalation techniques and mental health training.

State Rep. Roger Goodman, a Democrat that represents Kirkland, said most of the police groups will not fight against the initiative even though it lacks the compromises they were looking for.

“Seattle Police Officer’s Guild and the state troopers association are not supporting the initiative and are not even supporting the agreement, but they represent a minority of law enforcement across the state,” Goodman said. “The community groups and the law enforcement have been meeting together during the court challenge, continuing to reaffirm the agreement that went forward.”

Goodman was one of the lead negotiators of the legislative deal which by all accounts took a very unconventional (and unconstitutional according to the Supreme Court) route towards compromise. After the De-Escalate Washington group successfully gathered over 350,000 signatures for their initiative, it was sent to the legislature, which then had three options according to the constitution: they could pass the initiative; they could decline to pass the initiative which would then send it to voters this November; or they could decline to pass the initiative but put their own different version on the ballot alongside I-940.

Instead of following any of these options, however, Goodman and the other legislators created a fourth option. They hammered out a compromise between the groups and then put those compromised measures into a separate bill that they passed just before passing the I-940 as it was originally written.

That separate bill was supposed to modify I-940 to reflect the compromise, but the state’s highest court ruled this week that this legislative jujitsu was illegal because the constitution bars lawmakers from immediately modifying an initiatives to the legislature. If the lawmakers had that power, it would be violating the intent of the initiative process, according to Supreme Court Justice Sheryl Gordon McCloud.

“If the legislature could amend initiatives immediately upon enactment, this carefully drawn balance of legislative power between the legislature and the people would be destroyed,” Gordon McCloud wrote in the court’s opinion Tuesday.

Goodman, who said he was one of the lead organizers of the compromise in Olympia, said he sought legal advice during the process and was assured the legislature’s route was constitutional.

“We didn’t proceed with a process that we believed was unconstitutional. We proceed with a process we believed that was not unconstitutional,” Goodman told me.

Sp basically the legislature tried some weird shit to see if it would work and it ended up not flying. And it took Eyman, who has had many of his own initiatives ruled unconstitutional, to come in and call out the lawmakers.

Eyman is a professional initiative filer. He has sent over a dozen to the ballot and they are almost always dreadful ideas. In 2006, he tried to make it legal for people to be discriminated against based upon their sexual orientation. He has tried to defund our state government numerous times, and his asinine car tabs initiative crippled our state’s investment in transportation and helped cause financial ruin for our ferry system.

Eyman usually looks this ridiculous.
Eyman usually looks like this. HG

He has been trumpeting the I-940 decision as the proudest moment of his Initiative filing life.

“Of all the things I have done with initiatives this is the one I am most proud of because this process… set such a dangerous precedent,” Eyman told me.

As someone that has spent the last 20 years watching Eyman destroy the finances of our state, it takes great pains to say this, but I think Eyman might be right. The legislature clearly acted outside the normal constitutional laws, and while the effect in this case is actually positive, who knows how they could do the same thing in the future. It’s not hard to imagine how a legislature could pervert the intent of future initiatives and violate the will of the people.

I wanted to know how Eyman felt knowing he has killed a law that won bipartisan support, including from law enforcement groups, but he wouldn’t elaborate on his views of the police reform measure other than saying “It just doesn’t fit my value system.”

Eyman said the legislature was setting an "extraordinarily dangerous precedent" by giving an initiative sponsor the right to negotiate with the state legislature.

“So if they [the initiative's sponsor] have the right to negotiate on the I-940 initiative then that says that Tim Eyman can negotiate for all of the initiatives he sponsors and I don’t think anyone that reads The Stranger wants that.”

I agree Tim, none of us want you to have any more power over our state laws than you already have.

Goodman said regardless of what happens in November, the legislature will be able to clean up its mess and make this bipartisan reform a law in the next legislative session.

“The procedural challenge brought the parties even closer because we had to decide, well now what do we do,” Goodman said. “The bottom line is that you’ve got community together with police unlike anywhere else in the country and they are continuing to move forward to build more trust and improve law enforcement practices.”