The State’s Deadly Force Law for Police Could Soon Change

Initiative 940 received enough signatures to head to the state Legislature or the ballot.

It may soon become easier for police officers to be charged for fatal shootings in Washington, following Secretary of State Kim Wyman’s certification of a measure that would change state law around police training and accountability. Wyman tweeted Tuesday afternoon that a petition for measure Initiative 940 had received 301,250 valid signatures, well over the required amount to be considered by the state Legislature or to be added to the ballot. Legislators now have until November to write the initiative into law, otherwise it will go before voters as a ballot measure.

I-940 would amend a 1986 state law that shields officers from prosecution if they’ve killed someone on the line of duty “without malice and with a good faith belief that such act is justifiable.” The measure would remove the “malice” requirement, and it also expands the definition of “good faith” by requiring that offending officers meet an “objective” and “subjective” test. According to the measure’s text, the objective good faith test is met when a “reasonable officer, in light of all the facts and circumstances known to the officer at the time,” believes that deadly use of force was needed to avoid death or bodily harm to the officer or others. The subjective good faith test stipulates that the use of force was lawful and that the officer was convinced it was “warranted in the circumstance.”

It also mandates that police administer first aid when necessary and that they receive de-escalation, cultural competency, mental health, first aid, crisis intervention, and implicit and explicit bias training.

Police reform advocates have long sought to change the state law that has allowed most police officers involved in fatal shootings to be found inculpable. A 2015 Seattle Times investigation found that only one officer was charged out of the 213 fatal police shootings from 2005 to 2014.

Linh Thai, a member of police reform coalition De-Escalate Washington, said that the measure was validating to the families and friends of police shooting victims. Thai joined De-escalate Washington after the fatal shooting of 20-year-old Vietnamese-American Tommy Le in Burien last July. As a leader in the local Vietnamese community, Thai was asked by Le’s family to help organize community forums and reform the deadly force statute. De-Escalate Washington staffers mobilized an army of volunteers who gathered signatures at churches, community events and sports games throughout the state over about five months.

Despite I-940’s success, Thai says that the coalition is prepared for the state Legislature to send the measure to the ballot. “This has been a grassroots effort and it would only be right, in our opinion, that the voters would have a chance to actually vote for it,” Thai said. “There’s nothing we can do in terms of bringing them back to life, but what we can do is to make the system better and to … prevent another senseless death.”

The certification was a long time coming in the eyes of nonprofit OneAmerica, whose staff also helped gather signatures for the petition and served on the campaign’s steering committee. “There is real enthusiasm in communities across Washington State for I-940, which finally does something about a series of high-profile killings of unarmed men and women at the hands of the police,” said OneAmerica Executive Director Rich Stolz. “Whether adopted by the legislature or passed on the ballot this fall, this is the year that Washington appears poised to ratchet down the violence and value the lives of both police and people of color.”

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