Initiative 873 is aiming to amend our laws to make it easier to achieve justice for the victims of bad police shootings. Under the current law, it is nearly impossible to convict an officer involved in a bad shooting, meaning prosecutors rarely, if ever, file charges against police officers. This has led to widespread community distrust of all law enforcement, as well as victims and families never getting the justice they deserve. We need a better balance.
In Congress, I’m cosponsoring a comprehensive criminal justice reform package, but with Republican inaction on most legislation other than defunding Planned Parenthood, I know that supporting efforts at the state level will have the most lasting impact, which is why I’m supporting I-873. To be clear, I understand the critical role law enforcement plays in protecting our communities. I also can appreciate that police officers have to make split second life-or-death decisions that are incredibly difficult. But, the current law makes it impossible to ever convict on a police shooting no matter how egregious. This is wrong and must be changed.
When passed, I-873 will remove the “malice” and “without good faith belief that the act was justified” elements of the current law. What I-873 does is make it possible for officers who wrongfully use deadly force to be held accountable and for justice to be served. What it does not do is make every officer-involved shooting a criminal act, nor does it vilify all police officers. I-873 will be one step in helping rebuild the working relationship between police and the community that has been so badly damaged in recent years. Passing this reform is critical to helping law enforcement do their jobs.
Some will say that this goes too far. I disagree. Under the current law, an officer can only be convicted if prosecutors can prove that the officer acted with the bad intent and that the officer didn’t have a sincere belief that he or she was acting within the law. Some may also say that having officers be forced to defend their use of deadly force will overly burden law enforcement agencies. Yes, I-873 may make it so more police officers must answer to a court of law after a shooting, but, honestly, is that such a bad thing?
When making the decision to charge an officer, prosecutors must weigh the evidence against the possible foreseeable defenses and determine that a judge or jury would convict the defendant. Under the current use of force law, this means having sufficient and admissible evidence of both an officer’s bad intent and his or her lack of a good faith belief, and that the evidence against the officer is stronger than foreseeable defenses. As a former prosecutor, I know how difficult proving intent can be for a run of the mill defendant. When faced with proving bad intent for a police officer who is legally able to use deadly force in many situations, the task becomes functionally impossible—leading nearly all prosecutors to determine that they cannot even charge a police officer involved in a questionable shooting. I-873 would create a system in which an officer involved in a bad shoot could be brought before a court of law.
The justice system only works when everyone is doing their job. Just as prosecutors rely on defense attorneys to vigorously and zealously defend their clients, so too does the public rely on the justice system to bring those responsible for crimes in front of it. The current use of force law blocks the justice system from doing its job. Allowing the justice system to work is not anti-law enforcement, it is but one important step toward repairing the public’s trust in police. I-873 is just as good for law enforcement as it is for our community.
Adam Smith is the Congressman from Washington's 9th District. To find out where to sign I-873, click here. In addition, a state commission that's been looking into changing Washington's police killing law will be having its final meeting this November. Check back on Slog for details.