While the coronavirus pandemic will receive much of the legislative attention when lawmakers convene in January, police reform also should hold a prominent place on the agenda.
Efforts to decrease police brutality, improve accountability and address racial injustice could produce life-changing outcomes for many Washington residents. Done properly, reforms also can assist law enforcement officers by better defining their role in our communities and improving public confidence in the police.
As if another example of the need for reform were necessary, it has been provided by the shooting death of Kevin Peterson Jr., a 21-year-old Black man, on Oct. 29 in Hazel Dell. Preliminary reports indicate that a confidential informant had agreed to purchase Xanax pills from Peterson, that Peterson had a gun and that officers fired 34 shots, striking him four times.
Regardless of the eventual outcome of an outside investigation — currently being reviewed by Pierce County prosecutors — the fact that a low-level drug deal resulted in the death of a young man should lead to questions about what we expect from law enforcement.
At the state level, legislators appear eager to tackle the issue, following a summer of calls for racial justice and police reform.
Several bills are being drafted prior to the legislative session, including those that would make it easier to decertify officers for misconduct and would create an independent statewide agency to investigate police killings.
Other bills aim to ban the use of chokeholds by police officers and the use of police dogs to make arrests.
“I’m very hopeful we’re gong to achieve a major, comprehensive set of reforms,” Rep. Roger Goodman, D-Kirkland and chair of the House Public Safety Committee, told the Associated Press. “There’s going to be a lot of disagreement when we get to the details, but it’s not as adversarial as one might imagine.”
Early indications are that the issue of disciplining officers for misconduct could be contentious. That is understandable, and due process for accused officers must not be overshadowed by a desire for reform.
But the issue of decertifying officers is one that deserves broad support. As it currently stands, officers who are fired by one jurisdiction often simply move to another, regardless of the misconduct that led to their firing. More accountability is required, not only to protect the public but to protect other officers and restore the faith of the public.
In an effort to bolster that faith, it is important to have statewide standards that cannot be watered down at the local level by police union contracts.
In considering reforms that are beneficial to both the public and officers, there must a fair and equitable system of dispute resolution, balancing accountability with an understanding that officers often must make split-second life-and-death decisions.
All of these discussions will arrive amid calls from some activists to “defund the police,” which largely is an issue for city and county budget writers. The idea of defunding an essential public service should be quickly rejected, but there is a need for rethinking the role of officers as de facto social workers.
In January, lawmakers should focus on efforts to help police better protect the public and to help protect the public from police misconduct. Strengthening accountability for law enforcement while ensuring the rights of officers will be one of the Legislature’s top priorities next year.