Next Monday, a King County jury will convene to consider the death of Che Taylor.
Taylor, you may recall, was shot and killed by two police officers who believed he was armed, in violation of his prohibition as a felon from carrying a firearm. As veteran crime reporter Rick Anderson relates in this week’s cover story, it was Officers Scott Miller and Michael Spaulding’s belief that Taylor had a gun, rather than his use of it, that led to his death. After poring through more than a hundred pages of investigative reports, Anderson concludes that Taylor’s death-by-cop has an unusual twist: “The officers, fearing for their lives, fired at Taylor from point-blank range after not seeing a gun in his hand.”
Unlike many states, inquests are not required in Washington when a civilian dies at the hand of an officer. However, King County Executive Dow Constantine rightly has a standing executive order that all officer-involved deaths be subject to fact-finding hearings before a six-member jury. The point of an inquest is to allow an independent panel to decide whether or not police were justified in their use of force. That there will be a public examination of the facts surrounding Taylor’s death is a positive step toward accountability.
And yet if the past is prologue, the inquest will be for naught. Whatever the jury finds—and Anderson notes that the case for why Taylor had to die could be seen as mighty thin—the fact is that prosecution of police for deadly force is, practically speaking, an impossibility in Washington.
State law as it stands sets the bar for cop prosecutions well above what any district attorney could reasonably prove in court. By a law passed by the legislature in 1986, a prosecutor must prove an officer had “evil intent” when he or she kills someone in the line of duty. If that strikes you as difficult to prove, you won’t be surprised to learn that between 2005 and 2014, only one officer has been charged (and none convicted) with a crime in connection with the 213 people killed by police in that period, according to an excellent Seattle Times evaluation published last year. The situation has hardly improved since then, with Attorney General Bob Ferguson’s announcement last week that no charges will be brought against the Pasco police officers who shot and killed Antonio Zambrano-Montes, a mentally disturbed man shot as he turned toward with police with his hands outreached in apparent surrender.
But there is a silver lining to all this, in the form of Che Taylor’s brother, Andre Taylor, who has become the face of a movement to reform the 1986 law and bring more accountability to police officers who use deadly force in the line of duty. Given the strong influence police guilds have in the state legislature, Taylor and his allies plan to put to the voters next year I-873, which removes subjective state-of-mind language from the state statute and establishes a clear set of circumstances in which force would be justified. To be clear, this law would not bar officers from protecting themselves; it explicitly, and reasonably, maintains officers’ right to use force when they have probable cause to believe that a suspect poses a threat of serious physical harm to them or the public. But it does require that facts back up an officer’s assertion of a threat; no longer will it be enough for police to simply believe, evidence notwithstanding, that their lives are in danger.
The issue of police accountability has gotten an unexpected boost in recent weeks by San Francisco 49ers backup quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who has taken to kneeling during the national anthem before games to protest the killing of black men by police. Speaking to reporters after Monday’s game, Kaepernick alluded to certain reforms that could be made that would satisfy him and his growing roster of allies in the National Football League. While he didn’t get into specifics, I-873 is certainly the kind of reform he’s talking about.
Would a different set of laws have saved Taylor’s life? There is no way to know. But the current state of affairs is unacceptable. That should be made clear next week at the inquest. Because whatever comes out of the proceedings, it is almost certain to be the end, not the beginning, of any kind of justice for Che Taylor.