In a last-minute effort, lawmakers, cops, and community activists reached a deal on lowering the legal standard for prosecuting officers who kill in the line of duty. But there is a catch.
House Bill 3003 is a product of a surprise agreement between law enforcement representatives and the backers of I-940, a pending ballot initiative that would reform Washington’s police use-of-deadly-force laws. HB 3003 alters I-940 to make it more palatable to law enforcement and approves it on the legislative level, so the initiative will no longer appear on the ballet. The reformed initative will go into effect in 2019.
Washington state has long held a high legal bar for prosecuting police officers that kill in the line of duty. Statute dictates that officers must be proven to have acted in “malice” and “without good faith” to be prosecuted, a standard that critics argue is almost impossible to prove. A 2015 analysis from the Seattle Times found that while 213 people were killed by police between 2005 and 2014, only one officer was ever charged.
Last year, a group called De-Escalate Washington gathered enough signatures to put I-940 on the November 2018 ballot. The initiative would amend state law to lower the standard for prosecuting cops who use deadly force. It would also require that all law enforcement officers in the state receive training on mental health and violence de-escalation, and mandate that police officers provide first aid to injured suspects.
HB 3003—sponsored by Rep. Roger Goodman (D–Seattle) and Rep. Dave Hayes (R-Camano Island)—would alter I-940’s changes to state law by requiring an “objective good faith test” of officers who kill, considering what another “reasonable officer” would have done under the same circumstances when weighing potential criminal prosecution. The bill would only go into effect upon passage of I-940.
At a Senate Law and Justice Committee meeting on the bill on March 4, Rep. Goodman said that the bill would be perfecting the initiative. “We have worked very hard to bring together law enforcement and the community to resolve what is really part of a national discussion: police use of force,” he said.
At the meeting, Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs executive director Steve Strachan said that he supports the bill and that a “lengthy and negative” initiative campaign will not “serve to build community trust” between law enforcement and communities.
“We truly appreciate the willingness of the initiative backers to engage in discussion and to listen,” Strachan added.
“The theme of our campaign has been building bridges between communities and police and we believe this bill reflects that process,” said Heather Villanueva of De-Escalate Washington, adding that the bill “strengthens and clarifies I-940.”
“We’re going to save lives,” she said.
The House approved the bill by a 73-25 vote on March 7 and the Senate passed it on March 8—the last day of the legislative session—25-24 along party lines.
Prior to its passage in the Senate, several Republicans questioned whether it is legal to pass the bill and argued that the Legislature isn’t allowed to amend a ballot initiative.
“This bill clearly amends an initiative,” said Sen. Michael Baumgartner (R–Spokane).
Sen. Phil Fortunato (R–Auburn) said that while he supports the bill’s intent, he couldn’t vote for it because it was changing laws that don’t exist yet. “We are amending something in the future that hasn’t happened yet,” he said.
Sen. Mike Padden (R–Spokane Valley) proposed an amendment that would have placed the changes in HB 3003 on the November ballot as its own initiative that would compete with I-940, but his amendment was voted down along party lines by the Democratic majority.
Some Senate Republicans slammed the bill as an attack on law enforcement. “We need to stand up against this and make very clear that we support the people in law enforcement of this state,” said Sen. Doug Ericksen (R–Ferndale).
Prior to the bill’s passage, Democratic senators praised it as good policy on the divisive issue of police and their use of deadly force. “It supports the people in our community, it supports law enforcement, and it is excellent policy,” said Sen. Manka Dhingra (D–Kirkland).
This is an edited version of a report produced by the Olympia bureau of the Washington Newspaper Publishers Association.
Correction: An earlier version of this story stated that HB 3003 would only apply if the I-940 ballot initiative was approved by voters. In fact, the bill takes the place of the I-940, so the issue will no longer be on the ballot.