Katrina Johnson, Charleena Lyles’ cousin, speaks at a press conference for De-Escalate Washington on July 6, 2017. Photo by Sara Bernard

Police Accountability

New Initiative Seeks to Tighten Laws Around Police Killings

I-940 would change the way police are trained as well as state law on the use of deadly force.

“I just want to give it some perspective: There have been 20 people killed in Washington state just this year” by police officers, Not This Time founder Andre Taylor told a crowd of grieving families, advocacy organizations, union representatives, attorneys, and public officials gathered Thursday under a blistering July sun on the steps of City Hall. His wife, Dove, then read off the 20 names. The police shooting of Charleena Lyles captured Seattle’s attention — and the nation’s — but her death has only underscored what police reform advocates across the state have long been demanding: More training so that officers will avoid the use of deadly force, and police accountability systems so that cops cannot kill with impunity.

“We have to be able to change laws so that someone else’s family isn’t standing up here going through what we’re going through right now,” said Katrina Johnson, Lyles’ cousin, into the mic.

Having a child killed by police is “a club no parent wants to join, but continues to grow steadily,” said Marilyn Covarrubias, whose son, Daniel, was shot by Lakewood police officers in April 2015. “I will never give up on justice for Daniel and all the other victims,” she said, her voice quavering, and the crowd echoed: “Never! Never! Never give up!”

Both Johnson and Covarrubias, as well as the mothers of Jacqueline Salyers and Oscar Perez-Giron, also shot by police, spoke in support of Initiative 940, the latest iteration of an ongoing effort to change state law around police training and accountability.

The campaign was officially launched Thursday by De-Escalate Washington, the new name for a growing coalition that’s been advocating for state-level change for the past 18 months. A number of people on its leadership team also served as members of a state task force on the use of deadly force in policing, created in 2016; many of that group’s recommendations are folded into I-940.

Most crucially for reformers, I-940 would remove the legal requirement that a Washington police officer acted with “malice” in order to criminally prosecute him or her for killing someone. The 1986 law states that a cop “shall not be held criminally liable for using deadly force without malice and with a good faith belief that such act is justifiable.” This is what many reformers have roundly criticized, and what De-Escalate Washington policy chair Leslie Cushman calls “de facto immunity”: current law allows officers to avoid prosecution as long as they say they believe a killing was justified.

I-940 does not remove the requirement that an officer acted in “good faith,” language past reform efforts have tried to strike from the law. But it does add a detailed definition of what “good faith” means, requiring that the offending officer, another officer, and an independent investigation all determine that a slaying officer did so. It establishes an “objective” as well as “subjective” standard for good faith; it’s a new, “two-part test,” explains Cushman.

“The whole idea is preservation of life,” she adds. “We put that in the law. It’s not a theory, it’s in the law.”

The initiative also explicitly requires that officers be trained in de-escalation, crisis intervention, cultural competency, mental health, first aid, and implicit bias — and mandates that they administer first aid at the scene if necessary. “No first aid was rendered to my cousin until the third officer came on the scene,” Johnson told the crowd. “Maybe she might still be alive had they rendered first aid, after they shot her … seven times.”

And I-940 mandates that community members, including formerly incarcerated people, people with disabilities, and people of color, be involved in crafting the training curriculum—something that has never happened before, Cushman says. “It’s remarkable.”

I-940 is an initiative to the 2018 legislature, with the goal of gathering 340,000 signatures by the end of December. For those who followed I-873, the initiative that Taylor co-launched after his brother, Che Taylor, was shot by Seattle police last February, Taylor explains that I-940 is a “graduation.”

“That was like high school,” he says. Last year, I-873 gathered over 200,000 signatures, but not quite enough to qualify. “This is university. This is university because of the amount of professionals that we brought on this time … This is a professional campaign with heart. Last year it was a campaign with heart. This is professional with heart. That’s gonna make you win.”

So far, I-940 has a bigger budget than I-873, wide support from unions and community groups and several state legislators, and the endorsement of the Black Law Enforcement Association of Washington—a very big deal, advocates say. “We recognize that there is a reluctance to change within the law enforcement community,” said the association’s president, Cynthia Softli, in a statement, “but no one has come forward to specifically state why this initiative is not a good idea.”

I-940 is also similar to several bills introduced in both houses of the state legislature earlier this year. Those were “really good starting points,” says Toshiko Hasegawa, a member of the state task force on community policing, “but throughout the process they just got diluted and watered down so they weren’t meaningful.” In the end, she says, “the state legislature wasn’t able to get it done for political reasons. So, all right, fine! Then the people, we’ll do it ourselves.”

Throughout the session, “a lot of us testified in support of the bills,” adds Kimberly Mosolf, staff attorney with Disability Rights Washington and also a member of the state task force. “We met with legislators many times to talk about this. We have worked very hard to involve everybody necessary. Now, we’re at a point where those efforts didn’t necessarily work, but they did lead to here. So I think we’re ready to move forward.”

Hasegawa describes I-940 as a “holistic” approach; by going after both training and accountability, the hope is to transform policing from top to bottom. Currently, the state police academy only requires eight hours of Crisis Intervention Training. To Taylor, Mosolf, and I-940 supporters, that’s not even close to enough.

“Eight hours!” says Mosolf. “Compare that to what they get for firearms use — it’s just a tiny sliver.” Most officers-in-training are “getting drilled in how to use a firearm to kill somebody,” she says, not in how to de-escalate a situation. I-940 advocates say that they want the number of training hours in that kind of thing to be increased significantly, though that won’t be ironed out until long after they’ve gathered the signatures and are hammering out the details with legislators and law enforcement representatives.

Johnson, Lyles’ cousin, added that she thought with more de-escalation training that Lyles “would still be alive today.” And that with accountability, there might be justice. “If you’re gonna take a life, you have to be able to make it make sense to the family,” she said. “And right now, none of this makes sense to us. We want justice for Charleena Lyles and we will not stop fighting until we get it. And this law is a step in the right direction.”

sbernard@seattleweekly.com

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