SEATTLE — As Washington lawmakers began wrapping up their work on an ambitious package of police accountability legislation in the past week, reminders of the cause were not hard to come by.
In Minneapolis, prosecutors were concluding their murder case against former officer Derek Chauvin in the death of George Floyd, the Black man who died after Chauvin pressed a knee to his neck for more than nine minutes. A few miles away, a white officer shot and killed Daunte Wright, a 20-year-old Black man, after he was pulled over reportedly for having expired license plates. In Virginia, a police officer was fired for pepper-spraying a uniformed Black Army medic after a traffic stop.
“I am angry, I am sad, I am hurt,” Rep. Debra Entenman, a Black Democratic lawmaker from Kent, said Tuesday. “We are trying to do this work, and it seems like we take one step forward and two steps back.”
But Entenman and other Democratic lawmakers and activists say the slate of bills the Legislature is sending to Gov. Jay Inslee’s desk do indeed represent many steps forward when it comes to police accountability and public safety in Washington.
There are bills that curb police tactics and equipment, restricting the use of tear gas, chokeholds and neck restraints and banning no-knock warrants; that create an independent office to review the use of deadly force by police; that require officers to intervene if their colleagues engage in excessive force; and that make it easier to decertify officers for bad acts. Lawmakers in several states have taken aim at no-knock warrants since the March 2020 death of Breonna Taylor during a botched police raid in her Kentucky home.
Of 16 law enforcement reform and accountability bills sponsored by Democrats, 11 passed the House and Senate in some form. Some just await a final vote after lawmakers made changes to versions passed by the opposite house. Inslee, a Democrat, has already signed one measure reforming the private arbitration system by which officers can appeal discipline imposed by their departments. It had passed with bipartisan support.
Other bills headed to Inslee include a bill authorizing the state auditor’s office to review whether deadly force investigations followed procedures, requiring reasonable care when officers use force — including exhausting de-escalation techniques, and requiring the collection of data on police uses of force so the state can better understand how and when officers do so.
“These measures are about deinstitutionalizing our lives, and institutionalizing our power,” Sakara Remmu, lead strategist for the Washington Black Lives Matter Alliance, said in a written statement. “When Gov. Inslee signs them into law, they will have real impacts on Black Lives, as well as the lives of Indigenous and other People of Color.”
The measures were driven by Democrats, who control both houses in Olympia, but some, including the arbitration and data-collection bills, had bipartisan backing, and a number were drafted in consultation with policing groups as well as community representatives in the months since the deaths of Floyd and others killed by police sent protesters into the streets last year.
A coalition of Washington state law enforcement unions, representing more than 14,000 officers, said it could accept some of the bills, including the arbitration reform and duty-to-intervene bills. But it expressed concern that the decertification bill threatened the due-process rights of officers. The Washington Council of Police and Sheriffs opposed the bill restricting police tactics and the measure requiring “reasonable care” in using force.
Many Republicans joined them.
“This series of bills, the way they’re written, do feel like we’re beating up on the police officers who are trying to protect us,” Rep. Gina Mosbrucker, R-Goldendale, said during one debate last week. “We’re handcuffing the police. We’re making it so they’re afraid to do anything.”
Rep. Jesse Johnson, a first-term Federal Way Democrat, said he saw it differently: “Our system of law enforcement can be a greater system as a result of policies like the ones before us,” he responded. “We can actually encourage more people in our communities to want to be law enforcement officers if we pass bills like this, because they see the ability for our system to adjust, to adapt and to improve.”
Entenman, who saw her bill establishing the independent investigations office approved, said she intends to continue pushing a companion measure next session that would authorize the Attorney General’s Office to handle all prosecutions of officers who use deadly force unlawfully.
Johnson hopes to see the Legislature end qualified immunity for officers, which would allow them to be sued in state court, and to see it authorize community oversight boards that could have input on local policies and receive complaints about officers.
Johnson characterized the package of passed bills as “the biggest shift in police accountability and reform we’ve had in our state.”
But, he added: “There is so much more we can do. This is just a start.”