Changing the states deadly force law now looks more possible than ever.
Changing the state's deadly force law now looks more possible than ever. The Stranger

Families of police shooting victims have been trying for years to change Washington state's deadly force law. The language of the law in Washington requires that prosecutors prove that a police officer killed "with malice" in order to be held accountable for a bad shooting. This is effectively impossible to prove, and as a result, Washington has the most restrictive deadly force statute in the country, according to the Seattle Times.

But on Tuesday, changing the law came within closer reach. The Secretary of State certified that I-940, a ballot initiative that would make it easier to charge police for wrongful shootings, gained enough petition signatures to go to the state legislature, if not the ballot.

As I wrote last year, I-940 doesn't just eliminate the state's "malice" clause and articulate what a "good faith" use of deadly force really means. It would also mandate mental health and de-escalation training statewide, as well as require officers to deliver first aid directly after police shootings.

Between now and November, state legislators will have the first shot at considering whether to write I-940 into law. Nearly three dozen state officials have already endorsed the initiative, but Deescalate Washington organizer Andre Taylor, the brother of police shooting victim Che Taylor, says he's not banking on the legislature's ability (or willingness) to pass the legislation.

"We have hopes, but we're not betting on it," Taylor said. "And that's fine because we have a statewide poll showing that 75 percent around the state have agreed with the language around the initiative. And if the people have to show legislature how to lead, then so be it."

Taylor tried in 2016 to get a different version of the ballot initiative passed, but it failed to gather enough signatures to be certified by the state. That same year, a statewide task force convened by Governor Jay Inslee came to the same conclusion about the state's malice clause—that it should be removed—but legislators failed to make the change.

But this year already looks different. The Democrats now control the state senate, for one, and this year, I-940 has the endorsement of big labor, including the King County and Washington State Labor Councils.

The labor support could be critical to the survival of the initiative, considering that its biggest opposition comes in the form of police unions. The state's Council of Metropolitan Police and Sheriffs (COMPAS), the Washington State Fraternal Order of Police, the Washington Council of Police and Sheriffs, the Seattle Police Officers Guild, and the King County Police Officers Guild all object to removing the state's malice clause, and say that mandating mental health and de-escalation training is redundant with the training officers already receive.

"[The initiative] does not provide any funding to deal with the true problems that our communities face: rampant opioid addiction, a growing homeless population, and a chronically underfunded mental health system," the police unions mentioned above wrote in a statement last year. "Our organizations support the development of the highest trained, most professional law enforcement officers possible. We support data collection to determine if the use of force is being used inappropriately and we support increased funding in our communities to deal with chronic drug and homelessness problems. This initiative addresses none of these issues and instead focuses on lowering the standard to prosecute officers."

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But Taylor says that the initiative doesn't seek to punish police officers who do their job correctly—only officers responsible for unjustified shootings. He noted that before the Supreme Court ruled that it was unconstitutional for police officers to shoot fleeing suspects in the back, police unions opposed changing that policy, too.

"Any time there's a change that would impact police culture, automatically they see it as an attack against them, and that's unfortunate," Taylor said.

"If there's no other state with this language in their law and only one officer has ever been prosecuted, that lets you know that there's something there that's extremely problematic," Taylor continued. "We're at one of those impasses where we must come together and say that there is something not right here and we need to fix it together."