A coalition of African American, Native American, and Latino families who have lost loved ones to police violence has filed an initiative with the State of Washington to change the state law on deadly force and make it easier to prosecute police officers who kill.
State law currently requires prosecutors to make a two-pronged argument if they are going to prosecute cops for killing someone: They must show that the officer acted "with malice and without a good faith belief." The law, passed in 1986, is one of the most restrictive in the nation.
The initiative would strike this so-called "state of mind language" from the statute, language that makes the justness of a killing hinge on how a police officer thinks and feels at the time. The remaining language in the law centers on whether a police homicide can objectively be considered "reasonable" in light of threats to the safety of the officer or the public. Supporters will need to gather approximately 250,000 signatures by the end of the year in order for the initiative to appear on the 2017 ballot.
Critics say "state of mind language" creates a double standard between police and citizens, and gives officers a virtual license to kill. Police say it's unfair to use hindsight judgment when assessing decisions officers are forced to make in the moment.
There have been 213 killings by police officers in this state over the past decade, according to a Seattle Times analysis. But only one officer has ever faced charges. Not one has been convicted.
One of those cases was the fatal shooting of Native American woodcarver John T. Williams in 2010 by Seattle police officer Ian Birk. The shooting provoked an outcry and became the catalyst for Department of Justice–ordered police reforms in Seattle. The police department itself said Birk violated policy; Birk resigned in lieu of firing. But King County prosecutors declined to charge Birk because, they said, they couldn't prove Birk acted with malicious intent or that he didn't act in good faith.
With the blessing of Williams's brother, Rick Williams, the initiative is being called the John T. Williams Bill. Among its endorsers are the families of people shot by police around the state, including the family of Antonio Zambrano-Montes, killed in a hail of bullets while he ran away from Pasco police in 2015, as well as the family of Andre Thompson and Bryson Chaplin, two unarmed teenagers wounded by an Olympia police officer who shot at them after they allegedly shoplifted a case of beer.
The family of Che Taylor, killed by Seattle police in February 2016, has been instrumental in organizing the coalition behind the initiative. (Taylor's family says he was murdered; police say Taylor was killed while pulling a handgun on officers.) Taylor's brother and sister have hosted meetings in Seattle's Central District and forged friendships with other families in Tacoma and Olympia.
"I think this is important, as a civil-rights movement," said Andre Taylor. "The people need to be woken up. This is to make these officers be accountable."