Wednesday, October 21, 2020
Oct. 21, 2020

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Attorney General Bob Ferguson calls for Washington law to track, report police use of deadly force

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Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson on Tuesday recommended the state Legislature fortify police accountability laws by requiring law enforcement agencies to collect detailed information about use of deadly force and share it publicly.

“There is currently no public, centralized location for information on deadly force by law enforcement in Washington,” Ferguson said. “The public expects and deserves access to this information. These common-sense, broadly supported policies are long overdue.”

In a report on police reforms released Tuesday, Ferguson proposed to make available online granular details that most Washington law enforcement agencies currently keep to themselves — including what force was used, whether the person was armed, demographic details of officers and citizens, why police initiated contact and whether the incident resulted in payments or legal settlements.

“Community and law enforcement stakeholders may find that additional data would further inform the conversation about police practices and the circumstances that lead to the use of force, bringing about changes to reduce these incidents,” the report said.

Last year, the FBI created a national use-of-force database, but participation by law enforcement agencies is optional, and only about 10% of Washington’s more than 200 police and sheriffs departments voluntarily shared their data, according to Ferguson.

Based on limited information about police use of deadly force across Washington so far this year, there is much to report.

Relying primarily on news accounts, the attorney general’s office identified 21 deaths and nine serious injuries from January through May 26, the same date that enduring protests against police brutality and its disparate harm to the Black community began in Seattle and nationwide. Up to then, Washington was experiencing about a death a week involving police this year.

Protests inspired by the May 25 death of George Floyd in Minneapolis police custody and stoked locally by the March 3 homicide of Manuel Ellis in Tacoma police custody have demanded reforms in police funding and accountability.

Washington voters in 2018 passed a comprehensive police reform initiative aimed at removing legal barriers that historically have blocked police from being prosecuted for using excessive force on the job.

The law calls for strict independence in the investigation of police use-of-force incidents, excluding any agency involved in an incident from investigating it. The law requires a liaison to be assigned to the families of victims of suspected police misconduct and appointment of two citizens to oversee the investigations, public updates on the progress and de-escalation training.

Despite the new law, the investigation into Ellis’ death checked none of the required boxes. The investigation was handled by the Pierce County Sheriff’s Department, which had been aware since the night of Ellis’ death that one of its deputies was present and may have participated in detaining Ellis, 33.

He died from lack of oxygen exacerbated by methamphetamine intoxication and heart disease after uttering, “I can’t breathe, sir.” But only on the eve of its investigation’s completion, when it was to be presented the Pierce County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office for possible criminal charges June 9, did the sheriff’s department inform the prosecutor of its deputy’s possible involvement.

Ellis’ sister, Monet Carter-Mixon, 29, said the sheriff’s department never assigned a liaison to serve as a conduit between investigators and her family as the law requires, and the sheriff’s department starved the public of information about the investigation’s progress for about three months.

Gov. Jay Inslee ordered the investigation to be handed off to the Washington State Patrol and assigned the attorney general’s office to review the results for possible criminal charges.

Pierce County Sheriff’s Department spokesman Ed Troyer has said it remains to be determined whether the sheriff’s department violated the requirements of I-940. But the Pierce County Prosecutor’s Office, the attorney general’s office and Inslee have accused the sheriff’s department of failing to follow the new law. But it’s not alone. Each of the 30 cases of deadly force identified by the attorney general this year still require I-940-compliant investigations, a process the attorney general’s office began last week.

State Sen. Jamie Pedersen, D-Seattle, was optimistic that the Legislature will embrace Ferguson’s recommendations, particularly as the relationship between police unions and organized labor have frayed, as demonstrated by the King County Labor Council’s expulsion of the Seattle Police Officers Guild in June.

Last year, a bill calling for collection and public sharing of data about deadly use of force passed the House, but died in the Senate because some lawmakers were uncomfortable leaving the task to the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs, an organization that lobbies on behalf of law enforcement agency heads.

Last week, the association reiterated its support for more meaningful data collection and transparency. “We recognize the hurt, trauma, and anger caused by a history in which our profession has often failed to live up to our own ethical ideals, particularly in our relationships with Communities of Color,” the association’s statement said.

“The community outcry about policing reflected in protests all around the country and ongoing right here on Capitol Hill has raised awareness about the problem and a sense of urgency and determination among the public and among lawmakers to do something about it,” Pedersen said.

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