Police ready themselves on Capitol Hill in June of 2020.
Police ready themselves on Capitol Hill in June of 2020. PHOTO BY TRISTAN FAIRCHOK

On one side, you have the families of people killed by police officers, a coalition of criminal justice reformers, and the mayor of Tacoma. On the other side: Cops.

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This past Monday, the Senate Law & Justice Committee heard public testimony on one of the highest-profile bills to be introduced in response to last summer’s protests over police violence, and it was gut-wrenching. The bill in question is HB 1267, and it would establish an Office of Independent Investigations in the Governor’s office to investigate deadly force incidents involving police.

“This bill is the top priority for the 2021 session for the city of Tacoma,” said Tacoma Mayor Victoria Woodards, who provided testimony on the bill via videocall. Tacoma is still reeling from the death of Manuel Ellis; in March of 2020, police stopped Ellis, hogtied him, and placed a restrictive apparatus over his head despite his complaints of breathing problems. Ellis’s homicide was investigated by Pierce County sheriffs, but after various missteps Governor Inslee intervened and ordered an independent investigation by the State Patrol.

If HB 1267 passes, deaths like Ellis’s could be immediately turned over to an independent agency to investigate. Police organizations aren’t happy about that.

“It will rely on civilian investigators who are not subject matter experts,” said Spike Unruh, President of the Washington State Patrol Troopers Association. Rather than handing over investigations to an agency in the Governor’s office, he said he’d prefer to see the Washington State Auditor audit existing investigations, as is proposed in another bill, SHB 1089.

That claim was answered by Sonja Hallum, a senior policy advisor for public safety with the Governor’s office, who noted that HB 1267 doesn’t actually require that the investigations be performed by civilians; people with law enforcement experience may be involved, provided they aren’t connected to the incident they’re investigating.

Deborah Jacobs, a longtime advocate for police accountability, added that other jurisdictions successfully hand over investigations to civilians with no problems. “There is no secret sauce to learning how to conduct a thorough investigation,” she said. “Although it’s been the custom that people with law enforcement conduct these investigations, there’s no reason they can’t be competently investigated by civilians. And that’s what it’s going to take to gain the public trust.”

James McMahan, Policy Director of the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs, also spoke against the agency that HB 1267 would establish: “It appears to be a political appointee of the Governor’s office,” he said, claiming that the bill would jeopardize prosecutions.

Theresa Taylor, Executive Director of the Washington Council of Police & Sheriffs, agreed that an audit proposal was preferable to an independent agency. “We are here disappointed,” she said at the hearing.

But “disappointed” doesn’t even begin to describe the mood of some of the other people who testified on Monday. The families of people slain by police recalled heartbreaking stories of needless deaths.

“Police should not be investigating police,” said Trishandra Pickup, a member of the Suquamish tribe. Her partner, Stonechild Chiefstick, was killed by a Poulsbo police officer in 2019 during what the tribal leaders described as a mental health crisis. The officer who killed Chiefstick faced no charges after investigations by prosecutors and by the Poulsbo Police Department.

“The investigation… was sloppy, unprofessional, and not independent,” Pickup said on Monday.

Danny Bargala Sanchez spoke about his sister, Rene Davis. King County deputies killed a pregnant Davis in her home on the Muckleshoot Indian reservation in 2016 during a welfare check. Family members were questioned at 2 a.m. that night, Sanchez testified, but officers weren’t questioned until two weeks later.

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The committee also heard from Annalesa Thomas, whose son was killed by a Lakewood police officer in 2013. The details of Leonard Thomas’s killing are extremely upsetting, and involve family members trying repeatedly to de-escalate, as well as some particularly callous behavior by officers. An investigation into the homicide was overseen by the same person who authorized the use of deadly force.

“Thank you for sharing your stories,” said Seattle Senator Jamie Pedersen, the committee chair, after the family members had spoken. “I know that it’s retraumatizing for you to keep doing this over and over again.”

The bill is currently scheduled for an executive session this Thursday.

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