Improving police accountability and transparency is a complex process. As demonstrated both statewide and in Southwest Washington, entrenched systems are sturdy and difficult to improve or dismantle.
The need for improvement is demonstrated by one simple fact: According to an investigation last year by The Seattle Times, Washington has never decertified an officer for the use of excessive force.
As the Times explains: “The circumstances for decertification are so narrow, and the agency’s enforcement arm so understaffed, that the state hardly ever takes action. … Instead, officers with long histories of misconduct have been able to move from department to department.”
Citizens are poorly served by this lack of oversight. So, too, are police officers, whose reputations are besmirched by doubt created from those who violate policies in dealing with the public. “Good” cops vastly outnumber “bad” cops, but all are scrutinized through a lens tinted by the actions of a few.
The state Senate last week approved Senate Bill 5051, which would expand the capability of the Criminal Justice Training Committee to investigate police misconduct and revoke or suspend an officer’s licence. The vote was largely along party lines, with Sen. Annette Cleveland, D-Vancouver, voting in favor and local Republicans Ann Rivers and Lynda Wilson voting against.
Sponsor Jaime Pedersen, D-Seattle, said the goal is “to restore public confidence that members of our law enforcement and correctional officer professions … are appropriately exercising those powers.”
The bill, which now is under consideration in the House of Representatives, also would give a majority of seats on panels that hear misconduct cases to civilians and others unaffiliated with law enforcement.
The provision could impact the Southwest Washington Independent Investigative Response Team. That body was created as a result of Initiative 940, passed by voters in 2018. As a recent articlestory in The Columbian detailed, a review of the team’s non-law enforcement members “found retired law enforcement officers, a polygraph operator, a retired defense attorney and a participant in the Clark County Sheriff’s Office Citizens’ Academy.”
Advocates for a more inclusive oversight board say volunteer members are expected to be on call and receive no compensation — creating barriers for many community members who might otherwise be interested in serving. Advocates also say there is a background check that has no reasonable relationship to the position but might suppress interest.
Meanwhile, other bills in the Legislature are aiming to limit or prevent the use of police tactics such as chokeholds, no-knock warrants, tear gas and firing weapons from a car. The efforts reflect national conversations that came to a head last year, sparked by the death of George Floyd while in police custody in Minneapolis.
It is possible, even necessary, to support police officers and still demand accountability. This is not a binary choice.
But the bottom line is that police work for us. They are public employees, and must be accountable to the citizens they serve. That requires oversight from a broad section of the community, not only those who have ties to law enforcement or who might have preconceived ideas of how officers should approach their jobs.
As demonstrated by Washington’s inability to decertify officers for excessive force, police reform is long overdue. Even if it is a complex undertaking.