A mural of John T. Williams, the woodcarver who was shot by a police officer in 2010. Credit: No Touching Ground
The fate of a proposal to change Washington law on police use of deadly force dimmed Friday afternoon, as it failed to meet a key deadline in the Legislature, thanks in part to intervention by police unions.
At the center of the debate is language that protects officers from prosecution unless it can be shown they used deadly force in “malice” and not in “good faith” — among the broadest such protections in any state’s law nationally. The malice clause has been widely characterized as making prosecution even of reckless officers nearly impossible.
Although the issue has come up in two bills in the house, Senate Bill 5073 from Sen. David Frockt (D-Seattle) has so far been the center of the action to change that language. As law enforcement and community advocates brought Frockt their concerns over the course of the session, he’s responded in kind with a flurry of tweaks to keep both sides on board.
But although police chiefs and sheriffs around the state supported the bill, last-minute objections from rank-and-file officers’ unions appeared to have helped stop the bill from reaching a vote in the committee, normally a prerequisite to a vote by the whole senate.
“When the police rank and file guys … came in as a very hard ‘no’ on the bill, that was impactful,” Frockt said.
Frockt added that he isn’t ready to throw in the towel on the bill.
“I did not get any signals of ‘don’t keep working on this,’” Frockt said. “In fact I got some suggestions from key members on the [Republican] side for how to change it.”
Still, Frockt acknowledged that the added barrier does stretch the odds for the bill this year.
Advocates had been optimistic after Frockt’s bill cleared the Senate Law and Justice Committee, considered one its major obstacles in the legislature. Frockt credited a last-minute message from the main organization representing police management in the state, the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs, to the conservative heads of the committee asking them to pass the measure.
But the night before a Thursday hearing on the bill, emails went out to key legislators from rank-and-file police unions in objection. The next day, advocates from the state’s three major officer unions showed up to testify against the bill in its hearing before the Senate Ways and Means Committee. The same day, advocates from community groups also apparently sent emails of their own, registering worries that the changes didn’t go far enough.
Those messages apparently hit home. When asked about the emails, Tom McBride, of the Washington Association of Prosecuting Attorneys and a key player in negotiations over the bill, replied that he hadn’t personally received them and couldn’t confirm their contents. But he did say that remarks in the Thursday hearing made it clear that Senators on both sides had doubts.
Those doubts, McBride said, reflected police groups’ worries that the proposal offered too little protection to officers that had made innocent mistakes, while community advocates expressed concerns the proposal didn’t go far enough.
“Advocates on both sides, I think they just don’t quite trust that,” McBride said.
The failure of the bill to make it out of Ways and Means doesn’t necessarily mean it’s finished in the legislature. Although its path is more complicated, several routes exist for proposals to get around deadlines, including being written into the budget; the bill has financial components. Further, two similar House bills could still be modified to do the same thing as the Senate proposal.
But Frockt had served as a crucial go-between for law enforcement and community advocates and had made the bill a personal mission this year. And shifting action away from an energetic sponsor already trusted by both sides would bode poorly for the proposal.
To fundamentalists on each side, Friday’s move could even look like a win, giving police unions hope they can still kill the measure entirely, while simultaneously giving advocates optimism that they may be able to shape the proposal more aggressively.
As word of the likely fate spread in the halls of the Capitol on Friday, advocates expressed a desire to keep working on the bill. McBride, along with the head of the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs and Frockt all said they intended to keep working hard on the issue.
“I don’t want to give up on this yet,” said McBride.
Another possible path goes around the legislature altogether, through a ballot initiative. Community advocates have said they will go to the ballot with their own version if the legislature doesn’t find a solution this year. That would cut law enforcement out of the process of writing a change to the law.
“Initiative measures tend to be kind of blunt instruments,” said Rep. Cindy Ryu, D-Shoreline. “I’d much rather do it by going through the legislative process.”
Legislators involved with negotiations said earlier this month that the prospect of an initiative was helping to keep police representatives at the table.
For now, though, those advocates hoping to move the issue forward will have use its budget aspects to win consideration later, or start all over again with modifying one of the two other bills from scratch.