Recent protests revive push for WA to speed up police reform

Nearly two years after voters approved I-940, training lags while investigations into police-involved killings face scrutiny.

Three framed photographs

An array of photographs of Leonard Thomas who was killed by the Pierce County Metro SWAT team in 2013 is seen at his family’s home in Tacoma. From left, Leonard during Easter Weekend at age 7, Leonard with his son, Elijah, in the last professional photograph made of the two of them together, Leonard and his father, Fred, at Cannon Beach in Oregon at age 15. (Matt M. McKnight/Crosscut)

When Annalesa Thomas read about another fatal shooting of a Black man by a Lakewood police officer, her heart sank. She knew that officer. He was part of a police team that used explosives to blow off the back door of her son’s home, and then killed him. And yet this officer, who was ruled by a jury to be liable in her son’s death, still was in a position to shoot and kill someone else.

“I felt sick to my stomach. I literally sank back in the chair,” Thomas said. “I cried. I sat there and cried."

Lakewood Police Officer Mike Wiley, who shot and killed 26-year-old Said Joquin during a traffic stop May 1, was one of three officers a jury found liable for the death of Thomas’s son, Leonard, in 2013.  After that, Thomas, her husband, Fred, and other families who have lost loved ones at the hands of police became the faces of a push for reform that resulted in Initiative 940. In 2018, voters overwhelmingly passed the ballot initiative, which made it easier to prosecute police officers who shoot civilians, required independent investigations of police use of force and mandated a new de-escalation training regimen. At the time, it was considered a progressive measure.

But for Annalesa Thomas, the investigation of Wiley for the May shooting shows police agencies aren’t following the new law. It’s also a reminder of the proposed reforms she and other activists left on the table during hard-fought negotiations with lawmakers and others over how I-940 would be brought in effect. And it exposes what she said are deep cultural problems in police departments that are difficult to fix.

“Every single time I meet another family member whose son, daughter, brother, husband, whatever was killed by an officer-involved shooting that is questionable, I feel responsible,” Annalesa Thomas said. “Why didn't I shout louder? Why didn't I talk more? Why didn't I make people see that changes need to happen?”

It’s been nearly two years since Washington voters said by a 3-2 margin that they wanted to rein in biased policing. Now, with protesters regularly taking to the streets, the limitations of traditional notions about correcting biased policing are being put to the test.

At the forefront of the conversation that has emerged in the past few months is a restless generation of activists who are rejecting long-held ideas about how to reform the police. They say existing reforms, such as those mandated by I-940, have done little to slow killings by police. They call instead for foundational change, including steep cuts to police departments’ budgets and the diversion of those savings to other social services such as crisis-intervention units. 

This emerging movement comes as reforms required by I-940 were due to be taking effect. Yet, a review by InvestigateWest of the state’s compliance with the voters’ nearly 2-year-old mandate reveals a process fraught with delay, compromise and pushback. Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, police agencies were on track to miss deadlines set to enforce the law. And as the shooting by Wiley reveals, it may take intervention by activists to ensure that agencies follow the standards set under the law.

As deaths like Joquin’s continue, “people’s faith is shaken with I-940,” said Livio De La Cruz, treasurer of Black Lives Matter Seattle-King County.

Despite the dissatisfaction, the changes brought by I-940 are being felt. Last week, King County prosecutors filed what is believed to the first murder charge against a police officer under the new law. Some law enforcement officials said the law’s training measures will have long-lasting impacts. De La Cruz praised the accountability and improved training that the measure created, but said activists want to see much more intrinsic changes, including some that were left out of the compromises made to pass I-940.

“There’s the individual frustration people have that, ‘Why didn’t we push for this last time?’ ” De La Cruz said. “There’s the political winds changing, and people want to take advantage of that.”

Meanwhile, additional reforms are already being discussed. Gov. Jay Inslee has convened a task force to look at new reforms and Washington state Attorney General Bob Ferguson said his office is investigating 30 incidents involving potentially deadly force by police since the initiative took effect in January.

Cops didn’t follow the law

One of I-940’s key provisions requires independent investigations in cases of serious use of force by police in Washington state.

An independent team of detectives and crime scene technicians from agencies not involved in the killing are supposed to investigate and present their findings to the local prosecutor. The team leader is required to vet members for conflicts of interest and review that information with community representatives, defined as people who “have credibility with and ties to communities impacted by police use of deadly force,” within 72 hours of the investigation starting, according to state regulations drawn up to enforce the initiative. And the team leader is supposed to provide weekly public updates. That didn’t happen after Wiley shot Joquin, at least not initially.

Wiley and another Lakewood police officer stopped Joquin’s vehicle after seeing him run a stop sign, according to a statement released by the investigative team. According to a tort claim filed by Joquin’s family, Wiley rear-ended Joquin’s car and approached him with gun drawn, saying “shut the fuck up or you’ll get shot.” According to a statement by investigators, officers saw a gun on the floor of the vehicle. The officers held both Joquin and his passenger at gunpoint waiting for backup, according to the statement.

“However, a few minutes into the incident, the driver lowered his arms, causing the primary officer to believe the subject was searching for the firearm,” according to the statement. “The officer fired his weapon, striking the driver multiple times.”

Joquin’s family maintains he kept his hands up.

Pierce County’s Cooperative Cities Crime Response Unit, which investigates major crimes in smaller municipalities and is one of a patchwork of regional teams handling the independent investigations mandated by I-940, stepped in. It took nearly two months for the team to find a community representative, a process Annalesa Thomas said didn’t begin until she and her husband contacted the leader of the investigative team.

Investigators made a public statement the night of the shooting, but weeks elapsed before they followed up, and a month passed before any conflict of interest determination was made. For Annalesa Thomas, that was particularly troubling, because several of the investigative team members had served on a multiagency SWAT team with Wiley. At least two were present on May 23, 2013, when Wiley used explosives to breach the back door of Leonard Thomas’s home in Fife. A jury later found that decision ultimately led to Thomas’s death from a police sniper’s bullet.

Puyallup Police Capt. Ryan Portmann, who’s overseeing the investigation into Joquin’s killing, acknowledged there were delays. He chalked them up to learning the new system created by I-940. The Criminal Justice Training Commission, which developed the regulations governing use-of-force investigations, has not yet published some of the final documents the independent investigators need. It’s up to each of the municipalities participating in the Cooperative Cities Crime Response Unit to appoint community representatives. When Wiley shot Joquin, Lakewood hadn’t yet named any community representatives, although it has now.

Portmann said he eventually relied on a draft version of the conflict of interest form the commission provided. Portmann said he “did elect to remove a few people from the investigation,” but he wouldn’t say how many or whom. InvestigateWest has filed a Public Records Act request for the conflict of interest findings. That request is still pending.

Portmann said he was put in the position of enforcing I-940, which went into effect in January, without the tools and training he needed.

“Ideally what I would have had in hand the date the law went into effect was the conflict of interest tool, the final [version], the best practices, the final version of that, and I would have had the training to interpret what the conflict of resolution tool entails,” he said. Instead, he said, he got “an empty tool belt.”

Sue Rahr, the executive director of the Criminal Justice Training Commission, said when the Legislature last year passed laws implementing and modifying I-940, it set deadlines that “were not achievable.” The regulations outlining how to conduct independent investigations were published in December, weeks before the law and the regulations went into effect in January, which Rahr said gave law enforcement agencies little time to develop procedures. But, Rahr said, agencies shouldn’t wait until their first use of force incidents to appoint community representatives.

“Those rules are very clear,” Rahr said. “You can read them in plain English about what the independent teams were required to do.”

Portmann said he thinks as investigative teams across the state become more familiar with the new process, there will be more compliance.

“I’ve learned a lot from this experience, and I feel a lot better moving forward,” he said. “So if I have one of these tomorrow, I have a check sheet now. And every box will be checked as it relates to I-940.”

Annalesa Thomas questioned whether the team investigating Wiley would have followed I-940’s rules if she, her husband and other activists hadn’t put pressure on them.

“Not to be crying in my own beer, but I'm a family member who has lost a loved one to an officer-involved shooting, and yet I'm the one that has to tell them to follow the law of 940?” she said.

Some of the training mandated by I-940 also has been delayed. New recruits attending the Basic Law Enforcement Academy at the Criminal Justice Training Commission are receiving 200 hours of de-escalation and mental health training as required by the regulations developed after I-940 passed, officials said. However, instructors are in the process of redeveloping that curriculum after rushing to meet the Dec. 7, 2019, deadline for implementing it, said Jerrell Willis, the academy’s division manager for applied skills training.

Developing in-service training for the state’s 10,000-plus police officers has gone a little slower. Historically, departments have conducted their own in-service training without involvement from the academy, Willis said. I-940 mandates that starting Dec. 7, 2019, law enforcement agencies across the state were to begin offering 40 hours of in-service training created by the Criminal Justice Training Commission. The commission has developed 24 hours of de-escalation training, Willis said, and is still  training instructors and completing the development of the other 16 hours. Agencies have until 2028 to complete the training.  

The delays are in part because of the COVID-19 outbreak, officials said. Willis said the academy has certified some instructors, but stopped training over concerns about the coronavirus. In the coming weeks, the academy plans to roll out online training for instructors, he said. Planned trips to see other de-escalation and anti-bias programs have been put on hold after the outbreak. Monica Alexander, the advanced training division commander, said she thinks curriculum about race and policing will be ready in September.

“We don’t want to just go through the motions,” Alexander said. “That’s not helpful to our recruits and it’s definitely not helpful for our communities.”

Even as the state implements changes I-940 created, however, many of those who pushed for the initiative are already looking at what comes next. And activists who want to see more radical changes to policing are questioning the tenets on which the initiative was based.

What activists wanted, what they got

Joquin’s death isn’t the only recent killing by law enforcement that has drawn scrutiny. A Seattle Times examination of the investigation following the March 3 death of Manuel Ellis at the hands of Tacoma police raised similar questions about whether law enforcement agencies were following the new law. Ferguson, the attorney general, has asked the Legislature for a new police accountability law that would track use of deadly force across the state. 

For I-940’s proponents, it’s a reminder of what they didn’t achieve in negotiations before and after the initiative passed.

The initiative took a circuitous route through the Legislature and the courts to the November 2018 ballot. After voters approved the measure, members of De-Escalate Washington found themselves sitting across the negotiating table with law enforcement groups that had opposed its passage. An early compromise came during the 2019 legislative session, when lawmakers passed the Law Enforcement Training and Community Safety Act, which amended and replaced I-940. One of the biggest changes both sides agreed on was the standard for prosecuting police officers who kill someone. The ballot measure required officers to show “good faith” in the use of deadly force, something law enforcement groups strongly opposed. In a compromise, activists and police groups gave legislators their blessing to change the standard to whether “a similarly situated reasonable officer would have believed that the use of deadly force was necessary to prevent death or physical harm to the officer or another individual."

After the Law Enforcement Training and Community Safety Act passed, activists and police groups again came to the table to hammer out the details of how police forces would implement the new legislation. At the negotiating table, some activists asked for a statewide investigative body to look into use-of-force incidents.

“We wanted the attorney general to do the independent investigation, but that wasn’t feasible back then,” said Sonia Joseph, whose son, Giovonn Joseph-McDade, died at the hands of Kent police in 2017.

In another compromise, both sides agreed to let neighboring law enforcement agencies handle probes into police use of deadly force. Seattle is carved out of the state law because it’s under a federal consent decree. In a nod to I-940, the King County Sheriff’s Office observes and reviews the Seattle Police Department’s internal use of force investigations. In other parts of the state, existing multiagency investigative teams are being given those duties. Pierce County officials say they’re setting up a new team, headed by Portmann, that will exclusively investigate use of deadly force.

“It did take a long time to change the language and rewrite the” regulations, Joseph said. “And there are some things that do need to be refined. It’s the start. We did push so hard for that start and, although it took a long time for this change to happen, nothing happens overnight.”

Joseph and other activists said they’re watching closely to see what works and what doesn’t. Recent killings by police have some questioning whether the compromises last year made sense. The fact that officers involved in the Pierce County investigative team had served on the multiagency SWAT team with Wiley, the Lakewood officer who shot Joquin, raises serious concerns about whether those agencies can be counted on to investigate each other, Annalesa Thomas said.

“What we got are not truly independent investigations,” Thomas said. “You can't have a co-worker investigate you and be legitimate.”

In June, as pressure from protests mounted, Gov. Inslee created a task force to bring additional recommendations for reform to the Legislature. Thomas said she’s pushing for stricter limits on when police can use deadly force and an enforcement measure to ensure agencies comply with the independent review rules.

Law enforcement officials in Washington state said having an investigative team that responds to use-of-force incidents across the state would require considerable resources. Rahr said she supports an oversight board that reviews use-of-force investigations to ensure they follow the law.

But there remain activists who say the types of reforms brought on by I-940 will never achieve the goal of reducing deaths of Black and Indigenous people and other people of color at the hands of police. Thomas said she believes the measure “opened the door” to more substantive reforms. But she said Joquin’s death at the hands of Wiley is evidence of a deeper problem in police departments.

Correction: This story has been corrected to reflect that the Seattle Police Department is not currently subject to independent investigation requirements created by I-940.

Annalesa and Fred Thomas gather together outside of their home in Tacoma on Aug. 19, 2020. Their son, Leonard Thomas, was killed by police in Fife in 2013. The family received a multimillion-dollar jury award in the aftermath of his wrongful death, and they became major proponents of I-940. (Matt M. McKnight/Crosscut)

Where the conversation has moved

That bias plagues police departments, and communities of color are overpoliced, is well established. An InvestigateWest analysis of nearly 8 million traffic stops by the Washington State Patrol found that troopers searched Black, Latino and Native American drivers more often than white drivers, but found drugs and weapons less often. A Seattle police analysis found similar results last year.

Historically, these disparities have been chalked up to implicit bias, the idea that everyone has unconscious biases that impact how they view people of other races and ethnicities. The most common remedies: recruiting for diversity and more training. After InvestigateWest’s analysis of the State Patrol, its leadership pledged to study the issue and touted the training planned as part of I-940 as a potential fix. The Legislature set aside money for a study and a diversity recruiting plan. But the activists leading this year’s protest movement are challenging that way of thinking.

The latest protests have given voice to activists who say decades of reform have failed.

When the Seattle City Council in August voted to cut funding for officers’ implicit bias training, members of Decriminalize Seattle said it was one of the first times any municipality in the country questioned what one activist called “this gospel of implicit bias.” The city council voted to require the department to show its training is having an impact.

“We want to know there’s actually a return on our investment on implicit bias training,” Nikkita Oliver, a community organizer and lawyer in Seattle, told reporters in mid-August. “And part of that is about acknowledging that you’re not just going to train implicit bias out of individual officers. But it is also about acknowledging that this whole system is rotten and it’s steeped in white supremacy and we can’t train our way out of racist policing. We must actually dismantle it and invest in true community safety.”

For Annalesa Thomas, Joquin’s killing is an example of that need for deeper reform. She sees the same police department that was involved in her son’s death seven years ago involved in the killing of another Black man.

Thomas called police to her son Leonard’s house in 2013 after he’d asked her to take his 4-year-old son because he’d been drinking and was having a mental health crisis, then wouldn’t let her leave with the child. During a wrongful death trial in 2017, the lawyers for the Thomas family lawyers painted then-Assistant Police Chief Mike Zaro, who was in command of the SWAT team that responded, as giving confusing orders that resulted in Leonard Thomas’s death. Wiley, the officer who would later shoot Joquin in Lakewood, was described by the lawyers as overeager and overaggressive.

Court records show how police parked an armored vehicle in front of Leonard’s house and surrounded the home, arresting Fred Thomas as he jumped a back fence trying to reach his son. Trial transcripts describe how police decided against arresting Leonard Thomas that day if he’d release his son, but negotiations with the increasingly agitated 30-year-old never achieved that goal. Eventually, Wiley persuaded Zaro to let him breach the back door of the house with explosives. Thomas, standing in the front doorway, clutched his son to him after hearing the explosion, and a sniper fired a round that killed him.

Wiley’s reaction was ebullient. He called the sniper’s bullet a “frickin’ million dollar shot” and cracked jokes with fellow officers, according to court records. The jury levied $1.5 million in punitive damages against him. Jurors also assessed $3 million in punitive damages against Zaro, now Lakewood’s police chief, who is also setting up Pierce County’s independent investigative team; $2 million in punitive damages against Brian Markert, the sniper who shot Thomas; and nearly $10 million in other damages against the officers and the city of Lakewood. While the city’s appeal was pending, both sides settled for about $12.5 million. 

Annalesa Thomas wonders why someone like Wiley who she said exhibited “a callous disdain for human life” is still on the force. Her lawyer, Jack Connelly, who’s also representing the Joquin family, called Wiley “an exceptionally aggressive officer with an inadequate understanding of use of force” in a tort claim. That Wiley was in a position to shoot and kill Joquin after being found responsible for her son’s death is evidence of a cultural problem in police departments, Thomas said.

“If you worked for any large company and you were found directly responsible for someone’s death, and as a result of that the [company] you worked for had to pay out this large settlement, you wouldn’t keep your job,” she said.

Zaro said he wouldn’t comment about Leonard Thomas’s killing other than to say it was “much more complicated than the Thomas family is making it out to be.” He said he couldn’t comment about Joquin’s death because the investigation is ongoing. He said Wiley wouldn’t be permitted to speak to InvestigateWest.

Zaro said the Lakewood Police Department has made changes since Thomas’s death, including dropping out of the Pierce County Metro SWAT team, but he wouldn’t outline other changes. Lakewood Mayor Don Anderson wouldn’t comment for this story.

Deaths like Joquin’s at the hands of an officer who had already been found liable in a Black man’s killing speak to a broader problem within police agencies, activists said. Reforms like I-940 are built on the premise that “if only we could root out the bad apples, we could have a good police force,” said Angélica Cházaro, a professor at the University of Washington School of Law who works with Decriminalize Seattle, one of the organizations calling for a 50% cut in the budget for the Seattle Police Department.

“I think this moment is about questioning the role of policing in general,” Cházaro said.

While "defund the police" has become the rallying cry for the recent protest movement, Decriminalize Seattle often uses the term “divest,” saying it wants to see money shifted away from policing, which dominates the city budget, to other services. Doing so will improve conditions in underserved communities and, as a corollary, reduce crime, advocates said. 

Alexander, the training commander at the Criminal Justice Training Commission, acknowledged the training developed under I-940 can go only so far. A police officer whose supervisor doesn’t believe in implicit bias might not carry what they learned onto the street, she said. But she and other police officials said the new law hasn’t been given a chance to have an impact.

“I’m a proponent of training, and I believe good training will bring about good law enforcement officers on the street,” Alexander said. “Do I think it’s going to solve all the issues we’re facing? No. But I think it’s going to be one of the pieces of the puzzle that helps us get there.”

Despite being proud of what I-940 accomplished, Annalesa Thomas said Joquin’s death is evidence more needs to be done, and now.

“I-940 opened the door to what needs to happen, and it's substantial what needs to happen,” she said. “I want to take the lessons from 940 and do better.”

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Jason Buch

Jason Buch is a freelance reporter with more than a decade of experience covering everything from drug cartels to sea lions.