Washington: Holding police accountable for their use of deadly force

Ahead of the November 6 elections, CJR invited writers to spotlight stories that deserve closer scrutiny, in their states and beyond, before voters cast their ballots. Read other dispatches from “States of the Union” here.

In the week it took to report this story, in September, police officers in Washington fatally shot three people. In Marysville, a city just up the Pacific coast from Seattle, police shot a man allegedly wielding a knife in a case of domestic violence. In Cheney, a short drive from Spokane, the largest city in eastern Washington, officers shot a suspect threatening people with a knife in the parking lot of a grocery store. And in Walla Walla, the heart of Washington’s wine-growing region along the Columbia River, police shot a man after a low-speed car chase.

The incidents are under review, but the odds are good the officers involved will be cleared of wrongdoing. Washington has one of the United States’ most ironclad deadly force laws, shielding officers from criminal liability so long as their actions are “without malice.”

According to investigations by The Seattle Times and The Guardian, police killed 263 people in Washington between 2005 and 2016. In all but one case, no charges were brought against the officers, while the lone officer who faced charges was acquitted at trial. Mapping Police Violence, a database run by Campaign Zero, a group advocating for police reforms, ranks Washington eighth for the number of people killed by police officers every year. Or as an ACLU attorney told The Seattle Times, the “malice” standard is “virtually a license to kill.”

That could change in November if voters pass Initiative 940, the Law Enforcement and Community Safety Act. I-940 would drop the “malice” clause, instead requiring that an officer’s actions be evaluated according to what a “reasonable officer” would do in the same situation. The initiative also mandates officer training for conflict de-escalation, first aid for people injured in use-of-force incidents, and for crisis intervention.

According to journalists across the state, police departments are slow delivering on requests for documents, recordings, videos, even the names of the officers involved in deadly-force cases. And prosecuting attorneys further bog down the press’s ability to report on cases by delaying their decisions about what, if any, charges will be brought against officers.

The group De-Escalate Washington, which authored I-940, includes family members of people killed by the police. Early polling indicated the measure has a reasonable chance of passing. Washington voters have a track record Washington of passing controversial laws through ballot initiative such as legalizing abortion, marijuana, and physician-assisted suicide.

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For a measure critical of law enforcement, I-940 has met with on again, off again support by police groups. While some police see the measure as anti-cop, the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs worked this spring with De-Escalate Washington on a compromise version of I-940, which then was passed by the state legislature. But it was overruled by the state Supreme Court, which argued the public deserved to see the original I-940 on the ballot since it was the version circulated at the time of signature gathering. The police group has rescinded its support, saying I-940 should be voted down, while vowing to support the compromise version on a future ballot.

A steady drumbeat of high-profile police killings has eroded the public’s trust in law enforcement. Here’s a sampling: the 2006 beating death of Otto Zehm, a man with a mental disability falsely accused of stealing money from an ATM. The 2010 shooting death of John T. Williams, a Native American woodcarver who was using a knife to make street art. The 2013 shooting death of Leonard Thomas by a police sniper. The 2017 killings of a high school student, Tommy Le, shot by an officer who mistook a pen for a knife, and Charleena Lyles, a pregnant woman with known mental health issues shot by police she’d called to her own apartment.

I-940 could save Washington’s civic governments from costly wrongful death lawsuits. In 2015, the average wrongful death settlement in the U.S. was $1.2 million, and a survey of 10 major cities found $1.15 billion paid in settlements over a 20 year period. Of the above mentioned cases in Washington, the families of Zehm, Williams and Thomas settled their wrongful death lawsuits for a combined $18 million. Civil suits are underway by the Le and Lyles families.

I-940 also calls for an independent committee for reviewing deadly force cases, which would improve transparency. Currently, investigations are handled by regional task forces that sometimes include people involved in the deadly-force incident in question. Conflicts of interest have led to attempts at misleading the public and even outright cover ups of police-involved killings. Another problem, according to journalists I spoke to across the state, is that police departments are slow delivering on requests for documents, recordings, videos, even the names of the officers involved in deadly-force cases. And prosecuting attorneys further bog down the press’s ability to report on cases by delaying their decisions about what, if any, charges will be brought against officers—in effect, burying the stories.

There are more splashy issues than I-940 on Washington’s midterm ballot. Initiative 1631 would impose the nation’s first tax on carbon emissions, and Initiative 1639 would raise the minimum age for buying a semi-automatic weapon to 21. Both measures have drawn national attention, including from deep-pocketed PACs, which have bought advertisements across the state. Meanwhile, De-Escalate Washington spent much of its roughly $2 million war chest hiring a firm to collect signatures to get I-940 on the ballot, leaving it flat-footed in the run-up to the election.

If carbon and guns are the issues driving turnout in Washington’s midterm election, of what mind will the majority of voters be when they see I-940 on the ballot? Some might read it as Washington’s response to national events, like the shooting deaths of Michael Brown and Tamir Rice. But given the ample number of deadly-force cases in Washington, many of which are still under investigation, I-940 is an issue with deep local roots.

Journalists have a role in informing voters on how the measure will impact local law enforcement, especially if there are already reform efforts underway or pending deadly-force investigations whose outcomes might change if the “malice” clause were to be removed. Already, candidates are squaring off over I-940, while newspaper editorial boards are taking pro and con stances with their endorsements. By getting politicians and law enforcement agencies on the record about I-940, journalists can hold them accountable for whatever steps come next, be it reforms voted into law on November 6, or delivering on any promise to support police reforms in the future.

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Ryan Bell is a writer and photographer based in Mazama, Washington. In 2015-2016, he was a Fulbright-National Geographic Storytelling Fellow in Russia and Kazakhstan. His work has appeared in National Geographic, Bloomberg, Outside, and many other publications. Follow him on Instagram @ryantbell.