A proposal that would change the standard in Washington for which police officers could be charged with a crime for improper use of deadly force drew an overflow crowd to Olympia on Wednesday.
Under current state law, a police officer cannot be held criminally liable for using deadly force when acting “without malice and with a good faith.”
House Bill 2907 would change that, removing immunity for officers acting without malice and with good faith. It also outlines when deadly force is justifiable.
“Its time to change this immeasurable, impossible to prove, and imprecise law. Why? Because we are dealing with high value lives,” said Karen Johnson with the Black Alliance of Thurston County, who requested the legislation.
She said there is a lack of trust between communities and law enforcement.
Prime sponsor of the bill Rep. Luis Moscoso, D- Bothell, said there needs to be an open and transparent discussion about police shootings.
“There’s not a person in this room that hasn’t been paying attention to a lot the shootings in this country,” he said. “We are all concerned about why that’s been happening and how we can prevent that.” We need to have a civil discussion on the issue.”
Tom McBride, the executive secretary of the Washington Association of Prosecuting Attorneys, testified in opposition to the bill. He refuted the idea that police officers are not prosecuted for wrongdoing.
“There’s not a resistance to filing charges when they’re deserved, whether it’s a police officer or anyone else,” he said. “What we are interested in is a fair standard upon which to base our decisions.”
He said that fair standard has to take into account what police officers are asked to do each day, which is put themselves into “ambiguous, high-risk situations.”
Also speaking in opposition to the bill was Troy Meyers, an instructor at at the Washington State Criminal Justice Training Commission.
“One of the things that I have to tell them with every graduating class is that the state has their back if they act with good faith,” he said. “I don’t want to have to stop saying that.”
Meyers said that while much of the debate has focused on racial injustice, the bill doesn’t do anything to address race or mental health problem.
“I expect my state to address those things head-on if that’s really our concern,” he said.
Carlos Bratcher with the Seattle chapter of the National Black Police Association urged lawmakers to pass the bill, saying it will provide clarity to police officer. He said he’s shocked over what he’s seen in the last few years with police shootings
“As with any good practicing law enforcement officer, if I have a colleague or another officer that commits the use of deadly force under questionable circumstances, I want to see them being held accountable, as does any citizen in the state,” he said.
Other supporters say is too difficult to prosecute police officers in Washington. Pastor Richmond Johnson said the current law ties the hands of prosecutors — even when prosecution is needed.
“There’s a negative effect when the culture says shoot first. I’m persuaded that ‘shooting first’ is a result of a weak mind. We’ve got to turn the culture around,” said Johnson, who is the director of Partnering for Youth Achievement in Bremerton and has served on a police and community task force.
Mitch Barker represents the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs, and spoke in opposition to the bill.
He said the goal should not be to prosecute more officers, but to find a way to reduce the number of police shootings.
The committee also heard House Bill 2908, which would create a joint legislative task force on community policing standards, as well as a House Bill 2882 requiring law enforcement to collect data on deadly force incidents. Many of those who testified in favor of the deadly force bill were also in favor of the other bills.