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May 9, 2021

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Washington lawmakers hear testimony on bill to ban chokeholds, other police tactics

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OLYMPIA — A Washington legislative committee Tuesday heard testimony on a sweeping bill that would ban a range of police tactics, from chokeholds, neck restraints and tear gas, to use of military gear and no-knock warrants.

It’s part of an ambitious push by Democratic lawmakers and community advocates seeking accountability in the deaths of people of color at the hands of police, which sparked nationwide protests after the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis last year.

But Republican lawmakers and law enforcement groups raised a slew of questions and objections to House Bill 1054, saying it could have unintended consequences for public safety.

They asked whether it was wise to ban chemical agents like tear gas for crowd control, and why law enforcement shouldn’t use tactics like neck restraints when their lives are in danger.

Tuesday’s hearing came on the second day of the legislative session and as Washington and the nation wrestles with increasingly high political tensions, spurred in part by deep divides over racism and law enforcement.

Family members whose loved ones have been shot by police are urging lawmakers to clamp down on aggressive tactics used disproportionately against people of color, and make deadly force a truly last resort.

“My son was killed after a routine traffic stop. Another senseless murder of an innocent Black man,” said Sonia Joseph, whose 20-year-old son, Giovonn Joseph-McDade, was shot dead by Kent police in 2017 after driving away when officers stopped him for an expired registration.

“Running away does not warrant a death sentence,” said Joseph, who has filed a federal civil-rights lawsuit in her son’s death. HB 1054 would create a statewide policy prohibiting police from initiating car chases unless in pursuit of probable violent or sexual offenders.

Sponsored by Rep. Jesse Johnson, D-Federal Way, HB 1054 takes on a range of concerns about police tactics that have been highlighted by, among others the deaths of Floyd in Minnesota and Manuel Ellis by Tacoma police.

“We believe the vast majority of our law enforcement officers do their jobs with honor and with respect to the profession,” said Johnson during the committee hearing that took place remotely due to the pandemic. “However, we know that systemic racism exists across all of our institutions, including law enforcement.”

“In many cases, bad policing is a result of bad policy,” added Johnson.

HB 1054 would prohibit law enforcement from using neck restraints and chokeholds, tear gas and some military-style equipment, as well as ban the use of unleashed dogs for arrests and apprehensions, according to a legislative analysis of the bill.

The bill also would prohibit officers from intentionally concealing identifying information on their badges, and would ban the use of so-called “no-knock” warrants.

“Let’s step up to this problem. These tactics have been used to intimidate and terrorize communities of color for generations,” said Joseph.

At the hearing, Republican lawmakers raised questions and asked to give input on the legislation, and several law enforcement groups testified against it.

Notably against the bill as it stands is the Washington Association of Sheriffs & Police Chiefs (WASPC), which has worked in recent years to find compromise between lawmakers, community groups and law enforcement unions to pass changes to policing laws and policies.

During the hearing, WASPC policy director James McMahon told lawmakers the topics covered by the bill “are worthy of discussion, consideration and action by the Legislature.”

But the language of the bill “creates unacceptable consequences and unreasonably places members of the public and law enforcement in unnecessary danger,” said McMahon.

Organization members believe that if a neck restraint or chokehold could be used to avoid deadly force, it should be allowed in the interest of public safety, he said. The group is open to limiting the use of police dogs and no-knock warrants, he said, but not banning them outright.

The organization objects to prohibitions on chemical agents like tear gas, he said. While the public may think of those as crowd-control munitions, “their primary use of these is … on barricaded subjects,” he said.

WASPC has no objections to banning some types of military-style gear, McMahon said. But prohibitions on armored vehicles “is something we will always object to.”

The organization wants to work to improve HB 1054 before it advances to a floor vote, McMahon said.

Arman Barros of Teamsters Local 117 said he supported banning chokeholds, and “police must commit to several changes if they are to rebuild trust within the communities they serve.”

“However, the vascular neck restraint, when an officer is properly trained, is an effective technique to safely gain compliance for an individual resisting lawful police commands,” said Barros, who is an officer for Port of Seattle Police Department.

He called on lawmakers to expand training for police and increase the number of training hours for defensive tactics.

Johnson said he was open to talking about amendments to the bill, saying “this is obviously a democratic process.”

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