Washington’s deadly force law needs to be changed. But while the state has what critics decry as the nation’s weakest accountability measures for law enforcement, Initiative 940 is not the proper path for fixing a broken system.
The Columbian’s Editorial Board recommends a “no” vote for Initiative 940 on the November ballot, while at the same time encouraging the Legislature to address the issue next year. As always, this is only a recommendation designed to generate discussion.
Lawmakers did, indeed, attempt to address the use of deadly force during this year’s session. But the haphazard manner in which they approached the issue created more problems than it solved. Lawmakers passed House Bill 3003 to clear up some problems with the initiative, essentially amending a ballot measure before they passed the measure itself. After some wrangling in court, Initiative 940 was sent to voters.
The confusion over the ballot measure and the Legislature’s convoluted approach has overshadowed the basic question of how Washington law should address deadly shootings. According to a 2015 analysis by The Seattle Times, there were 213 fatal police encounters in the state from 2005 to 2014. One officer faced criminal charges for a shooting, and that officer was acquitted.
In many deadly force cases, officers are justified as they work to protect the public and themselves. But this state’s law also plays a role in the surprisingly low number of officer prosecutions. In 1986, the Legislature decided that officers should not be prosecuted for killing somebody in the line of duty as long as they acted in good faith and without what the law deems “evil intent.”
That is a nearly impossible standard for prosecutors to meet, requiring them to get inside the head of an officer who is in a tense situation requiring a split-second decision. As King County Prosecuting Attorney Dan Satterberg told The Seattle Times, “This almost perfect defense to a mistaken use of force has kept police officers out of court as defendants.”
Initiative 940 would require prosecutors to use a “subjective good faith test” in deciding whether to pursue criminal charges against an officer following a shooting. This, again, is an impossible standard requiring prescience on the part of the criminal justice system. HB 3003 rightly removed this guideline.
That is our primary reason for recommending a vote against I-940. Replacing one unattainable standard that shields officers from accountability with another that could subject them to specious prosecution is not an improvement and does not better serve the public. It is essential to find a balance that allows officers to do their jobs in an effective manner while also protecting the public.
To that extent, there are some reasonable portions of I-940. The measure would call for de-escalation training and mental health training for officers — steps that can help reduce the likelihood of deadly force. It also would require an independent investigation when deadly force is employed and would make it the duty of law enforcement to render medical assistance.
Nationally, a spate of questionable police shootings in recent years has drawn much attention to the issue of police accountability. That is needed in Washington, as well, as are changes to state law. While the editorial board cannot recommend Initiative 940 to voters, we encourage the Legislature to revisit the issue in order to protect law enforcement and the public.