OLYMPIA — A proposal to create a statewide independent prosecutor’s office to review police use of force didn’t garner enough support Tuesday to receive funding.
Groups like the Washington Coalition for Police Accountability have long argued that prosecutors rubber-stamp deadly uses of force, in part because they rely on local agencies and their investigations.
The Legislature has looked at proposals for an independent prosecutor within the Washington state attorney general’s office to review deadly use of force cases for the last two years. The proposal goes hand in hand with the Office of Independent Investigations that the Legislature created in 2021, which, once staffed, can step in to investigate deadly uses of force across the state.
This session’s proposal, House Bill 1579, provided the office jurisdiction to review and prosecute deadly use of force cases, concurrent with county prosecuting attorneys.
Those prosecutors would have had to overcome a presumption that they have an inherent conflict of interest in prosecuting police for deadly use of force.
County prosecutors argued the proposal took away duties given to them under the Washington state Constitution, and that the presumption of bias in the proposed law was unwarranted. They also argued the governor already has avenues to step in under extreme circumstances.
“The intent behind this bill is to mirror the independent and transparent process of the Office of Independent Investigations,” sponsor Rep. Monica Stonier told the Senate Law and Justice Committee last week.
The Washington Association of Prosecuting Attorneys opposed the proposal.
“The perception that law enforcement officers are not regularly prosecuted is not proof that the system is corrupt,” Taylor Gardner, deputy policy director for the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs, testified. “Rather, the fact that Washington’s law enforcement officers are rarely prosecuted for wrongdoing should be an indication that officers are complying with the law, training, process, procedures.”
Spokane County Prosecutor Larry Haskell said he believes the proposal was unconstitutional.
“I think it is at odds with the constitutional authorities given in the state constitution to the locally elected prosecutor,” Haskell said in an interview.
Haskell and other county prosecutors have argued the office of independent prosecutions is unnecessary because the attorney general’s office can already step in and prosecute cases in extreme circumstances.
Spokane Police Chief Craig Meidl and Spokane County Sheriff John Nowels oppose the bill based on similar concerns.
Manuel Ellis — a case for both sides
Supporters and opponents of the bill cited the case of Manuel “Manny” Ellis, a Tacoma man who died after police restrained him on his walk home from a convenience store in March 2020.
Initially, the Pierce County Sheriff’s Office investigated the incident, until months later it was revealed that Pierce County deputies were involved in Ellis’ detention.
Gov. Jay Inslee directed the Washington State Patrol to take over the investigation and refer charging decisions to the attorney general’s office. The attorney general’s office has since charged the officers involved in Ellis’ death.
Proponents of the bill say setting up an office of independent prosecutions will help avoid the delays and first improper investigation that happened in Ellis’ case.
For Haskell, the Ellis case is proof the new office is unnecessary and an overreach.
By Inslee stepping in, he showed there’s already a path to take cases away from local prosecutors without presuming bias, Haskell said.
In 2015, advocates asked Inslee to appoint an independent prosecutor in the case of Antonio Zambrano-Montes, who was shot and killed by three Pasco police officers. Inslee declined, noting county prosecutors have a legal duty and moral obligation to investigate and prosecute crimes under their jurisdiction, according to an Associated Press story at the time.
Inslee said prosecutors should not be removed “absent very specific tangible and compelling reasons.”
Nothing has changed since 2015, Haskell said.
Haskell also argued it’s hard to hold an appointed prosecutor accountable. If the citizens of Spokane County don’t like how Haskell handles cases, they can vote him out or recall him.
The bill passed the House of Representatives earlier this month and was under consideration by a Senate budget committee until Tuesday, when legislators on the committee confirmed at a press conference the bill wouldn’t move forward.
“I think there’s support for independent prosecutions,” Senate Majority Leader Andy Billig, D-Spokane, said. “I think that’s an importance piece to transparency and accountability and public safety.”
Though the bill had broad support in his caucus, Billig said there were still some questions around the policy and how expensive it would be.
Sen. Manka Dhingra, D-Redmond, said independent prosecutors are an important piece of keeping law enforcement transparent and accountable, but there were budget constraints that the Legislature is facing this year.
“This is, unfortunately, the hurdles that we face,” she said.