Sunday, June 26, 2022
June 26, 2022

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In Our View: We can’t afford to ignore need for police reform

The Columbian
Published:

A failure to rethink police conduct and strive for increased accountability not only poorly serves the public, it also can be costly.

Last year, Washington cities and counties settled 15 misconduct and wrongful death cases for a total of $34.3 million, according to The Seattle Times. That was an increase of 146 percent over what was paid in 2020, and a 364 percent increase compared with 2019.

In the past five years, according to the Times, Washington municipalities have paid more than $100 million to resolve claims arising from allegations of police misconduct.

To be sure, no amount of money can make up for the loss of a loved one. But families are increasingly feeling empowered to seek restitution for egregious actions by law enforcement.

That shows no sign of abating. In March alone, the family of Manuel Ellis agreed to a $4 million settlement with Pierce County; Poulsbo and its police department agreed to a $2 million settlement; and Spokane County agreed to a $1 million payout. Each of those cases involved wrongful death allegations involving police.

Nationally, The Washington Post has reported that from 2010-20, cities paid more than $1.5 billion to settle claims of police misconduct. Seattle paid out $13 million over that time, with 40 percent of that total involving officers named in multiple settlements. Portland paid $8 million, with 44 percent of that involving officers in multiple cases.

As a family member in a Pierce County case said: “That lawsuit was the only way for us to see any justice. . . . You have to live with the stigma that people actually think you did it for the money.”

Seattle civil rights attorney Gabe Galanda told The Seattle Times: “Municipal risk managers certainly seem more risk averse and seem to be paying relatively higher settlement amounts after George Floyd’s murder. Involved officers, guild lawyers, purported investigators, municipal attorneys and other state actors still conspire to conceal and falsify evidence and obfuscate the truth from the public . . . These dynamics persist notwithstanding nascent police reforms and continue to impact whether cases settle or get tried before a fact-finder.”

That, rightfully, is proving costly and leading to change. In 2018, 60 percent of Washington voters approved Initiative 940 — the “Police Training and Criminal Liability in Cases of Deadly Force Measure.” That, along with legislative measures to promote police accountability, have led to critics saying they diminish the effectiveness of law enforcement.

Indeed, there can be a fine line between effectiveness and overly aggressive enforcement, and that has led to much debate over the past two years about police funding and accountability. While a robust, well-trained police force is necessary to protect the public, the truth is that our communities cannot afford to ignore the need for police reform. Nor can they ignore the need for officers who repeatedly violate civil rights to be removed from the force.

In 2021, a series of police reform bills passed by the Legislature included making it easier to decertify an officer for misconduct, preventing them from simply taking a job with another department. They also closed a loophole allowing an officer to resign in lieu of termination, thereby avoiding an investigation.

These not only protect the public from those who abuse their authority, they help protect the vast majority of officers who are noble public servants. In the process, those laws likely will save taxpayers some money from payouts for misconduct.

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