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Washington State Could Reduce the Burden of Proof for Prosecuting Police

by Countable | 10.31.18

What the Initiative Does

Washington Initiative 940 would create a good faith test to determine when the use of deadly force by police is justifiable, require police to receive de-escalation and mental health training, and require law enforcement officers to provide first aid. It’d remove the requirement that prosecutors show that a law enforcement officer acted with malice to be convicted (the “malice standard”).

If this initiative passes, the state legislature will require a two-thirds vote to amend it in the first two years. If it fails, the legislature could pass a compromise version of the initiative, with has further clarification on deadly force rules and the obligation to give first aid, with a majority vote.

In Favor

Currently, the malice standard makes it very difficult for prosecutors to successfully prosecute police officers who wrongfully use deadly force. This initiative will make communities safer by increasing police accountability.

Opposed

Police officers already receive crisis response training. This initiative isn’t about training — it’s about politically prosecuting police officers to appease anti-police activists. Making police more vulnerable to prosecution will ultimately make them, and the communities they protect, less safe.

In-Depth

De-Escalate Washington is leading the campaign in favor of Initiative 940 with the support of Washington State Democrats, Amnesty International USA, ACLU - Washington, U.S. Senator Patty Murray (D-WA), and others. De-Escalate Washington says that the goal of this initiative is to save lives:

“The goal is to save lives. This is accomplished through training and increased accountability. In all of 2016 there were twenty-nine people killed by police in Washington State. According to data compiled by the Washington Post, approximately one third of these twenty-nine showed signs of mental illness. Already in 2017, as of December 2, there have been thirty-six people killed by police in this state.”

Fuse Washington, a nonprofit that supports progressive policies, adds that there have been hundreds of people harmed by police brutality in Washington over the past 30 years, and that there needs to be more accountability for police actions:

“Over the past three decades, hundreds of people in our state have been victimized by police brutality. From 2006 to 2014 alone, 213 people were killed by police. Yet, in all this time, only one officer was charged with a crime and brought before a judge. Even then, he was subsequently acquitted - meaning no police officer in our state has ever been convicted of a wrongful death. In Washington, no one is above the law - except when there is a lethal loophole that allows law enforcement personnel to get away with the unjustified killing of brown people. From the day an officer swears an oath "to protect and serve," we as a community expect them to honor their commitment and practice good judgment in all matters concerning public safety. Because the law only evaluates an officer on their perceptions rather than the facts at the time of a police shooting, Washington policy legalizes the application of personal biases and racial prejudices in the evaluation of a threat. The racial identity of a suspect should never impact an officer's ability to judge a situation and act in the interest of public safety."

The Coalition for a Safer Washington is leading the campaign in opposition to Initiative 940 with the support of the Washington State Fraternal Order of Police, Washington Council of Police and Sheriffs, Council of Metropolitan Police and Sheriffs, Washington State Patrol Troopers Association, and more. The Coalition for a Safer Washington argues that, far from making communities safer, this initiative would make them less safe:

"I-940 does not make our communities safer, it does the opposite. It only lowers the standard to prosecute police officers. It does not provide any funding to deal with the true problems that our communities face: rampant opioid addiction, a growing homeless population, and a chronically underfunded mental health system. Our organizations support the development of the highest trained, most professional law enforcement officers possible. We support data collection to determine if the use of force is being used inappropriately and we support increased funding in our communities to deal with chronic drug and homelessness problems. This initiative addresses none of these issues and instead lowers the standard to prosecute officers."

In a joint statement, the Washington State Fraternal Order of Police, Washington Council of Police and Sheriffs, Council of Metropolitan Police and Sheriffs, and Seattle Police Officers Guild argued that this initiative’s sole purpose is to make it easier to prosecute police officers:

"This initiative seeks to hide its true purpose in language that mandates training that officers in Washington State already receive. Its true purpose, as shared through the social media accounts and statements of its promoters, is to make it easier to prosecute police officers. [The initiative] does not make communities safer. It does not provide any funding to deal with the true problems that our communities face: rampant opioid addiction, a growing homeless population, and a chronically underfunded mental health system. Our organizations support the development of the highest trained, most professional law enforcement officers possible. We support data collection to determine if the use of force is being used inappropriately and we support increased funding in our communities to deal with chronic drug and homelessness problems. This initiative addresses none of these issues and instead focuses on lowering the standard to prosecute officers."

There are two versions of this initiative: the original, summarized above, and a compromise, House Bill 3003. House Bill 3003, which is the original initiative plus an amendment, is the result of a compromise between the legislature, the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs, the Fraternal Order of Police, and De-Escalate Washington (the organization that collected the 350,000 signatures to get the original initiative on the state ballot).

The Thurston County Superior Court ruled that the legislature acted in violation of the Washington Constitution by approving changes to the initiative, and ruled that the original Initiative 940 must be placed on the ballot. Attorneys for the legislature appealed the decision, but the state Supreme Court ultimately affirmed the lower court’s ruling and ordered the original measure to be put on the November 2018 ballot.


Summary by Lorelei Yang

(Photo Credit: iStockphoto.com / PaulMoody123)

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