OLYMPIA – A year after searching for ways to reduce the deaths of police officers in the line of duty, the Legislature is looking for ways to reduce the deaths of civilians by police officers.
The state Senate Judiciary Committee was told Monday that officer-involved shootings could be reduced with more training, new equipment or more familiarity with the community. When those shootings occur, cities and towns might use public inquests rather than investigations by other law enforcement agencies to determine what happened.
Committee Chairman Adam Kline, D-Seattle, said Washington has seen 13 cases of police force against individuals in the last six months. The committee was looking for ways to reduce future incidents without deciding “who’s a good guy and who’s a bad guy.”
Ten years ago, after a controversial shooting in Seattle, police departments began issuing Tasers, Spokane police Chief Anne Kirkpatrick said. But they, too, have critics nationally and locally.
“My community in Spokane does not understand why we’re using Tasers,” Kirkpatrick said. “We don’t want to jump before we know what we have.”
Spokane and many other Washington cities use a team approach to investigate officer-involved shootings, she said. In Spokane, that means city police investigate county sheriff’s deputy shootings and vice versa; on the West Side, nearby cities have similar agreements.
But other witnesses suggested the state set up its own inquest board, or give cities and counties the power to hold inquests. “Let’s level the playing field so the public can have everything,” Robert Jackson of Seattle said.
Sen. Mike Carroll, R-Lakewood, said four officers were killed in his district last year and he’d be reluctant to pass any laws that would cause police to pause “one second longer than they should” because it could lead to more officer deaths.
“We’ve got to be very careful that we are not overdoing to the point of making officers in mortal danger of their lives by hesitating when they shouldn’t be,” Carroll said.
But Sen. Jeanne Kohl-Wells, D-Seattle, noted the controversy in that city involving the shooting of John Williams, a Native American wood carver who was holding a knife and a piece of wood: “In that context, I’m not sure that there shouldn’t have been a little more hesitation on the part of the officers.”
Attention to officer-involved shootings in next year’s session should be exactly the same as the attention to slain officers in the last session, Kline said. Both represent tragic losses, he said.