New WA police accountability laws likely to see change

Tweaks aim to address police claims that the new laws were confusing, but families of police shooting victims say changes would roll back reforms.

A woman stands outdoor at a podium at left, with a government building behind her. Also behind her are a string of paper signs in the shape of gravestones with names and dates on them. At right is a box shaped like a coffin that says, "Blood will be on your hands."

Sonia Joseph speaks at a rally at the Washington State Capitol on Feb. 3, 2022, urging legislators to reject House Bill 2037 and House Bill 1788, which would amend police accountability laws passed last year. (Melissa Santos/Crosscut)

Sonia Joseph wants to make sure Washington state lawmakers don’t forget her son’s story.

Giovonn Joseph-McDade was 20 when he was shot and killed by Kent police after a car chase in 2017.

Now, lawmakers are considering changes to police accountability laws that Joseph fears will lead to more fatal police encounters like the one that took her son’s life.

Last year, Washington’s Legislature dramatically overhauled the state’s police accountability laws, including by reining in police tactics and setting new standards for police use of force.

But many law enforcement officials said the changes made in 2021 went too far — and legislators are now looking to amend those brand new policing laws to address some of the concerns they’ve heard from police officials.

Bills advancing at the Washington State Capitol this year would clarify that police can still use physical force to help transport people to mental health treatment, as well as to apprehend people who flee when police stop them for questioning. Those measures are House Bill 1735 and House Bill 2037.

Another proposal, House Bill 1719, would establish that officers can still use large-caliber military firearms to deploy less-than-lethal munitions, like bean bags and rubber bullets. This wasn’t clearly outlined in last year’s law banning police use of military equipment.

A fourth measure, House Bill 1788, would restore the ability of police to engage in some vehicle pursuits, which legislators severely curtailed last year. 

Democrats who spearheaded last year’s police reform efforts characterize these measures as relatively small clarifications to last year’s laws, which they say were instrumental in helping to reduce fatal police encounters around the state. 

“This is not a rollback; this is not an unraveling by any means of the great progress we made last year,” said state Rep. Roger Goodman, D-Kirkland, who chairs the House Public Safety Committee and is the lead sponsor of HB 2037, which would amend last year’s use-of-force law.

Yet Joseph and other family members of people killed by police say some of this year’s proposals are unnecessary and would expose people of color to more racial profiling and violence at the hands of police. 

The Washington Coalition for Police Accountability, of which Joseph is a member, opposes the measure to allow more vehicle pursuits, HB 1788, as well as Goodman’s measure to let police use physical force when someone flees an investigatory stop, HB 2037. 

Members of that group held a rally Thursday on the steps of the Capitol, urging legislators not to pass those two bills. The coalition, which includes many families of people killed by police, pushed hard to pass last year’s slate of police accountability measures.

“What we’re trying to do is protect civil rights,” Joseph said after the rally.

Signs in the shape of gravestones hang in a row during a rally held at the Washington State Capitol in Olympia, Feb. 3, 2022. Each sign bears the name of someone killed by police. The group behind the rally, the Washington Coalition for Police Accountability, is concerned legislators may roll back police accountability measures approved last year. (Melissa Santos/Crosscut)

Enoka Herat, police practices counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington, said the problem with allowing police to use physical force against someone who flees after being stopped for questioning is that those investigatory stops — often called Terry stops — are based on reasonable suspicion, not probable cause. That’s a much lower evidentiary standard, she said.

Last year’s law, by contrast, generally allows the use of force only if police have probable cause to make an arrest or if there is an imminent threat of injury.

With reasonable suspicion, Herat said, “there’s a lot of discretion there, and that’s a place we see racial profiling.” She wants the Legislature to keep the higher standard to help prevent police abuse of power, particularly against people of color. 

State Rep. Jesse Johnson, who supports HB 2037, said it’s important to note that even under the new proposal, force could be used by police during these temporary investigative stops only if someone flees. 

“They still can’t use force during the questioning, during that 20 minute-or-so period where the person is in police custody,” said Johnson, D-Federal Way.

Others argue that many people — especially people of color — may run from police even if they haven’t done anything wrong because of a fear of police violence. 

Police officials, meanwhile, say they need the change in law because, right now, people can simply walk away from officers who are trying to gather information about a crime — and there’s not much the police can do about it. 

Police agencies have raised similar concerns about last year’s changes to rules about vehicle pursuits. 

“There is now an environment of emboldened disregard for the law, and so it has increased the number of people who are willing to make the decision to flee,” said Steve Strachan, executive director of the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs.

Strachan said individual police agencies have been reporting an increase in people not stopping when police try to pull them over for a traffic stop, although he doesn’t have statewide data quantifying the scale of the increase.

Under the law approved last year, police cannot start high-speed vehicle chases to pursue suspects in low-level crimes, such as shoplifting or car theft. And they can pursue  people suspected of violent crimes, such as rape, kidnapping or murder, only if they have probable cause to think the person committed or is committing the crime.  

HB 1788 would let officers once again engage in car chases when they have reasonable suspicion someone committed a violent crime, as opposed to requiring probable cause. While the measure may be amended further, as of Feb. 3, the suspect’s escape still would need to pose an imminent danger to the public that outweighs the danger posed by engaging in a high-speed chase. And car chases stemming from low level crimes, such as theft or vandalism, would still be banned.

Bob Songer, the sheriff of Klickitat County, said police are having to let more suspects get away because of last year’s law, and he worries that’s posing a danger to the public.

“You are going to create more victims, more victims out there, because we won’t be able to stop someone on reasonable suspicion leaving a crime scene or whatever,” Songer testified during a Jan. 18 public hearing before the House Public Safety Committee.

“With a vague description of a suspect, we don’t have probable cause to stop or arrest,” he added. “So we need reasonable suspicion to make that stop.”

Opponents of the change argue that police pursuits are highly dangerous and can hurt or kill innocent bystanders, as well as police officers, suspects and passengers. Johnson, the Federal Way lawmaker, said that’s why he doesn’t support amending the pursuit law, even as he pushes for other tweaks to last year’s policing laws.

Johnson said the other measures being advanced this year would leave most of last year’s protections in place, including the requirement that officers use reasonable care and try to de-escalate before using force. Johnson was the primary sponsor of two of the most sweeping police reform measures that passed last year, House Bill 1054 and House Bill 1310.

Police and legislators aren’t the only ones suggesting the laws should be updated. A recent opinion from the state attorney general urged legislators to clarify some points of the 2021 laws, including how “physical force” is defined. Last year’s law didn’t define the term; HB 2037 would address that issue, defining physical force as law enforcement action “that is reasonably likely to cause physical injury or transient pain." Another measure, Senate Bill 5919, would establish a slightly different definition.

The state Attorney General’s Office also said using the crime of obstruction of justice as a justification for officers to use physical force against fleeing suspects is a bad idea and probably not allowed under last year’s law. That’s contrary to what several Democratic legislators, including Goodman and Johnson, suggested last year

HB 2037 aims to address that portion of the attorney general’s opinion. 

Other proposed changes are far less controversial and have won the support of the Washington Coalition for Police Accountability, the group that includes Sonia Joseph and other family members of people who died at the hands of police. Those measures include HB 1719 and HB 1735, the bills that would clarify that police officers can use military equipment to deploy less-than-lethal weapons and use physical force to transport people to mental health treatment.

Republicans similarly support those measures, along with the other two bills Democrats are advancing to alter last year’s policing bills. 

Even so, some GOP lawmakers had hoped to see more substantive changes made to reverse the 2021 laws, which House Minority Leader J.T. Wilcox recently described as “egregiously bad.” 

GOP lawmakers are still hoping to pass bills to funnel more money toward local policing, House Bill 1787 and Senate Bill 5841.

Joseph, the mother of Giovonn Joseph-McDade, remains concerned that lawmakers could end up giving officers more leeway to stop people based on unconscious bias — something she fears will have deadly results. 

As Joseph spoke at the state Capitol on Thursday, behind her hung the names of more than three dozen Washington residents killed by police. To her left, on a wooden box shaped like a coffin, someone had scrawled a message in bright red. “Their blood will be on your hands,” it said.

“The rollback is because officers want to use force at their discretion without being held accountable,” Joseph said. “And we’re not standing for that.”

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About the Authors & Contributors

Melissa Santos

Melissa Santos

Melissa Santos is formerly a Crosscut staff reporter who covered state politics and the Legislature.