In 2017, a King County Sheriff’s Officer shot and killed a young Vietnamese community member, Tommy Le, just a block away from where I went to high school. In the years since then, in light of multiple police murders of community members, people have rallied for reforms, only to be met with slow-walked incrementalism, compromised visions, and empty assurances of “soon, just wait.” In the same amount of time, we’ve lost Charleena Lyles, Manny Ellis, Clayton Joseph, Iosia Faletogo, and countless others in Washington state alone.
Every single death reverberates through families and communities, and every piece of police reform legislation punted to another day is a wasted opportunity to address a life-and-death issue. Getting police reform accomplished in the state legislature isn’t just a priority for me this legislative session. It’s a moral imperative.
The urgency I feel stems from the day Tommy was killed, when I first saw headlines uncritically repeating the King County Sheriff Office’s press release. It wasn’t until a friend of the family texted me, informing me that the victim of the police shooting was Tommy, that I realized I couldn’t trust the official narrative. I knew the whole story must not be out, and resolved to do everything I could to help Tommy’s family get justice for their son.
In case you’re one of the many who only saw the initial report of Tommy’s death, it’s important to be clear about what actually happened when he was killed by King County Sheriff Deputy Cesar Molina: he was not a “Man with knife, calling himself the ‘Creator.'” He was a joyful young man, just hours from graduating high school, and he was holding a pen.
This familiar strategy of distorting the narrative repeated itself recently, when Pierce County Sheriff Ed Troyer claimed that Sedrick Altheimer “threatened to kill [him].” In reality, all Mr. Altheimer had done was deliver newspapers while Black along his early-morning paper route in the Sheriff’s neighborhood.
Incidents like this one, and unjustified death after unjustified death of our friends, family, and neighbors at the hands of law enforcement have eroded any trust our communities felt in police. Although it will take a long, sustained effort to build back trust, I’m proud to say that we’ve made real progress towards a system of policing where every person of color in our state is treated with dignity in their interactions with law enforcement.
Here’s just a sample of the tremendous work done by leaders from across the state and on track to become law this session: bans on unnecessary and harmful police tactics from chokeholds to no-knock warrants, stronger decertification processes so abusive officers can’t simply resign and move to a new department to avoid accountability, and the creation of an independent agency to investigate incidents whenever an officer uses lethal force against a civilian.
We are also moving to fix the system of arbitration, because until there is reform in law enforcement discipline the daily experiences of people of color aren't likely to change. That’s why I’m working to pass Senate Bill 5055, which removes the ability for the selection process to be gamed, gives the public and policymakers the ability to easily know for the first time how many arbitrations are happening, and shows the results of those cases.
I have rejected the politics of paralysis, because I knew that failure on these critical reforms was not an option. I brought reform advocates together with organized labor and found a solution based on work done in Minnesota that meets the urgency of this moment: establish a neutral selection process for arbitrators while requiring that anyone serving in that role undergo training to understand the overt racism and implicit bias responsible for so much unjustified police violence against people like Tommy. With this reform in place, our communities can have faith that the other measures the legislature is enacting to protect them will have a system to ensure officer compliance with real teeth.
Between this package of reforms we’re enacting in state law and the news last week that King County has finally reached a settlement with his family, the grief our entire community has grappled with for years feels acknowledged at last, and those responsible for his death will face real accountability.
It is a hard-fought step in the right direction. Much remains to be done to ensure no family ever suffers a loss like Tommy’s, but this is what it will take to find justice: leaders who act with an urgency born of personal experience with the costs of failure. Leaders who simply will not standby as members of our community are impacted by an unjust system.