Washington State's extreme law on police deadly force, which all but immunizes police from prosecution for murder, could finally be changed if the state legislature honors sweeping new recommendations from an official task force charged with reducing fatal encounters between police and civilians.
The recommendations, finalized on November 21 in a marathon 11-hour meeting, are the result of hours of emotional and contentious conversations between police, prosecutors, lawmakers, and civil-rights leaders. At the end of the final meeting, Representative Roger Goodman (D-Kirkland), a cochair of the task force, described the experience as one of the most difficult and rewarding he's ever had.
State senator David Frockt (D-North Seattle), who was involved in the final meeting, added: "Given what's going on in the country, this task force can be a model going forward."
Toshiko Hasegawa, a representative of the Washington State Commission on Asian Pacific American Affairs, called the task force recommendations "a win for diverse communities across the state demanding real accountability as a foundation for trust with police."
The question is: Will Olympia lawmakers follow the task force recommendations when they convene for the next legislative session in January?
The current Washington State law sets an exceedingly high bar to prosecute a cop for murder, requiring prosecutors to make a two-pronged argument: They must show that the officer killed "with malice and without a good faith belief." Passed in 1986, the law is the most restrictive in the country, according to Amnesty International.
The task force voted 14 to 10, with two abstentions, to recommend removing both the malice and good faith clauses from the law—and for adding language defending officers who reasonably believe deadly force is necessary from criminal liability.
Human rights and civil liberties groups have argued that the current "malice" and "good faith" clauses in Washington law create a double standard between police and citizens, and give officers a virtual license to kill. There have been at least 213 killings by police officers in the state over the past decade, according to a Seattle Times analysis—20 percent of the casualties have been African American, though they are just 6 percent of the state population. Only one officer has ever faced charges. Not one has been convicted.
The 26-member task force began meeting earlier this year, empaneled by the legislature after an effort to change the law was quietly shot down in committee during the last legislative session. During the final meeting, its members shuffled between their seats and the marble-floored hallway to have hushed conversations over the course of a long day. By afternoon, Cynthia Softli, a community corrections officer representing the Black Law Enforcement Association of Washington, quipped that she and another member, Sue Rahr, the head of the Washington State Criminal Justice Training Commission, had "solved all the problems we have in the bathroom." Seahawks wide receiver Doug Baldwin also showed up at the meeting, announcing his support for changing the law and citing his own father's experience as a police officer. "It's the right thing to do," Baldwin said. A small scrum of TV crews followed him in and out of the building.
Still, several representatives of law enforcement refused to compromise and found themselves in the minority as they rejected all attempts to revise the law. Republican state senator Kirk Pearson (R-Monroe) and representatives of the Washington State Fraternal Order of Police, the Council of Metropolitan Police and Sheriffs (COMPAS), the Washington Council of Police and Sheriffs, and the Washington State Troopers Association called only for more funding, staffing, and training for police.
Seattle police officer Kerry Zieger, the COMPAS representative, said police, in fact, were being treated unfairly. "Basically, it's let law enforcement take it in the shorts," Zieger complained. "There has to be some personal accountability with the citizens we interact with." He called for more charges to be filed against civilians who assault police officers.
At the end of a previous task force meeting, Republican representative David Hayes, who is also a Snohomish County Sheriff officer, explicitly threatened that changing the law would have a "chilling effect" on police officers "to get out there and do their jobs."
But not all police opposed changing the law.
Softli, who worked at the Seattle Police Department before moving on to the Washington State Department of Corrections, voted to remove both "malice" and "good faith" from the law, citing the need to hold accountable officers like Ian Birk, a former Seattle cop fired for killing Native American woodcarver John T. Williams.
"I sit in this unique position," she said, seated two seats away from Zieger. "The problem that we face as law enforcement is that we are not open to some of the changes. We have to move in a different direction."
After the vote, she said she was disappointed with some of her law enforcement counterparts on the task force. "I don't want us to get stuck in a 'us versus them' mentality," she said. "I want law enforcement to take the lead, to be leaders of change."
In a statement, Governor Jay Inslee said the task force recommendations represented "an important first step in increasing dialogue between law enforcement and communities of color," and that he looks forward to seeing a bill get introduced in Olympia as a result.
But the recommendations are now expected to face resistance in the legislature. The Washington State Senate remains in Republican hands following the November election, and Democrats hold a razor-thin majority in the state house. Sources who support changing the law worry that Republican senator Mike Padden (R-Spokane) will refuse to consider any changes to the statute in the Law and Justice Committee, which he chairs. Padden's office did not respond to a request for comment. (House Speaker Frank Chopp and House Judiciary chair Laurie Jinkins also did not respond to requests for comment by press time.)
But even if the state senate balks, the results from the task force will undoubtedly add fuel to the strategy behind Initiative 873, a statewide referendum effort led by families who've lost loved ones to police violence. That initiative—endorsed by the Seattle Police Department and a host of big-name Democratic officials, as well as Seahawks players Baldwin and Michael Bennett—would remove both the "malice" and "good faith" clauses from the law. The campaign looks increasingly unlikely to collect the signatures it needs by the end of 2016. But campaigners are vowing to run the initiative again next year if needed.