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Initiative would allow prosecution of police in shootings

Katrina Johnson, a cousin of Charleena Lyles, speaks at the kickoff for Initiative 940. Credit: Matt M. McKnight/Cascade Public Media

The language of De-Escalate Washington — a proposed  initiative that would heighten training requirements for police officers and change state laws surrounding justified use-of-force — has been months, even years in the making.

But in just the last month leading up to its official unveiling Thursday, Seattle and King County were rocked by three high-profile shooting deaths by police officers: Giovonn Joseph-McDade in Kent; Charleena Lyles in Seattle; and Tommy Le in Burien.

In the wake of the shootings, the kickoff felt particularly emotional and drew a large crowd on the steps of City Hall, all standing behind the families of people who have lost loved ones to police shootings.

De-Escalate Washington hopes to succeed where another initiative — the John T. Williams bill — failed last year in an effort to make it possible to hold officers criminally responsible for blatant misuses of force. Despite significant community momentum, the 2016 initiative effort did not employ paid signature gatherers and couldn’t reach the minimum to make the ballot for this November’s election.

Organizers said Thursday they feel much more prepared to reach their goal of 350,000 signatures, aided this year by paid signature collectors. If the effort succeeds, the proposal would go to the state Legislature, which could adopt the bill or write its own version. If the bill were not approved by the Legislature, the measure would go to voters in November 2018.

The proposed measure, officially labeled Initiative 940, follows the intent of the John T. Williams bill in its attempt to make it possible to prosecute police officers for using deadly force.

Washington’s current law is widely seen as setting one of, if not the most, restrictive standards in the country: Prosecutors need to prove that an officer who killed someone did so out of “malice” and without “good faith” motivation. The subjective nature of those requirements makes prosecution all but impossible.

De-Escalate Washington attempts to create some objective standard for “good faith,” namely that an officer was trying to prevent death or serious harm to another individual and used deadly force “for a lawful purpose.” In the wake of a deadly shooting, an independent investigative body would be tasked with deciding whether the officer acted in good faith.

The “malice” standard would also essentially be stricken. The exception would be for public employees mandated to kill someone — an execution. The point, said organizer Gabe Meyer, is not to unleash a wave of prosecutions against police officers. It’s to make prosecution possible at all.

The proposed initiative goes beyond the earlier measure with a number of measures. For one, it requires officers across the state to receive de-escalation training. What this means in practical terms is fuzzy at this point — officers are already required to undergo eight hours of crisis intervention training and the language of the initiative doesn’t specifically lay out how this new mandate will change or improve that requirement.

Attorney Kimberly Mosolf with Disability Rights Washington said the language was intentionally left open-ended so organizers, law enforcement and legislators could nail down the details later. But she imagined the new training requirements would mean more involvement from marginalized and affected communities and require officers to receive more recurring training.

The initiative also requires officers undergo mental health training. Additionally, law enforcement would be required to administer first aid on the scene. While many departments, including the Seattle Police Department, already have this as part of their policy requirements, at least when deemed reasonable, this would expand the mandate across the state. The question of how much and how quickly first aid officers should be expected to render became a point of interest earlier this year after Crosscut released video showing Che Taylor lying on the ground for seven minutes after being shot by Seattle police without receiving first aid. Taylor died in the February 2016; an inquest determined that he likely died at the scene although he wasn’t pronounced dead until he had been taken to a hospital.

The unveiling of the initiative drew a number of people affected by police shootings around the state: family for Daniel Covarrubias, who was killed in Lakewood in 2015; family of Jacqueline Salyers, killed in Tacoma in 2016; Andre Taylor, Che Taylor’s brother; sisters and cousins of Charleena Lyles, killed last month in Seattle; and others.

Katrina Johnson, Lyles’ first cousin, said she and her family members want to see more emphasis on de-escalation training and quick first aid. (Police representatives have said that officers administered first aid immediately to Lyles.)

“Had those things been done … Charleena Lyles would still be alive today,” she said. “We have to be able to change the laws so that no one else’s family is standing up here going through what we’re going through right now.”

“Our city and state representatives are failing us,” said Marilyn Covarrubias, whose son Daniel was killed in Lakewood. “Citizens should not be afraid of calling 911. Police are abusing their power and using more force than necessary, and too often not attempting to de-escalate the situation and are shooting unarmed men women and children. Police officers are losing the trust of the community.”

Organizers said they both need and want to work out the details of the initiative with law enforcement agencies. Already, the Executive Board of the Black Law Enforcement Association of Washington has endorsed the measure. In the near future, organizers will meet with head of the Washington State Criminal Justice Training Commission Sue Rahr to nail down more details.

Signature gatherers have until the end of 2017 to reach their goal of nearly 350,000 signees. If they hit that mark, and the state legislature does not enact any of the changes, the measure would go on the ballot November 2018.

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