OLYMPIA – A bill that would make it easier to charge police officers with crimes for improper use of deadly force received its first public hearing Wednesday, drawing testimony from many who argued that it’s too difficult to prosecute law enforcement for shooting people in Washington.
Sponsored by Rep. Luis Moscoso, D-Bothell, and a group of other Democrats, House Bill 2907 notably removes a portion of existing law that says police can’t be held criminally liable for using deadly force if they acted in good faith and without malice.
Proving an officer did not act in good faith, but with malice makes it “virtually impossible to hold law enforcement officers accountable for unjustified use of force,” said Doug Honig, communications director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington, in a phone interview before the hearing in the House Public Safety Committee.
Washington is one of the hardest states in the nation to charge an officer for use of deadly force, Honig said.
“If we are that much of an outlier, we have to ask ourselves, ‘Is that where we want to be?’ ” Moscoso said in a phone interview on Tuesday.
Prosecuting more police shouldn’t be the focus of legislation, testified Mitch Barker, executive director of the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police. Instead, focus should be on reducing improper police shootings, he said.
Tom McBride, executive secretary of the Washington Association of Prosecuting Attorneys, testified that eliminating the language protecting officers acting in good faith would make it too easy to unfairly second guess police after an incident.
“We don’t think this standard is fair, given the role we ask officers to do,” he said.
The bill would also modify when police can use deadly force, sayings it’s justifiable when deadly force is necessary to prevent “an imminent threat of death or serious bodily injury” to them or others.
Moscoso said conversation about a bill started in March of 2015, and was influenced by police shootings in Pasco and Olympia, as well as protests of police killings and militarization of police departments around the nation.
A prosecutor declined to charge three police officers who fatally shot 35-year-old Antonio Zambrano-Montes in February 2015, saying there wasn’t evidence the officers acted with malice. Zambrano-Montes, an immigrant from Mexico, threw rocks at officers and told them to kill him before he was shot to death.
In Olympia, a police officer that shot and wounded Bryson Chaplin and Andre Thompson, accused of repeatedly threatening the officer, weren’t charged because the county prosecutor said officer Ryan Donald acted without malicious intent.
Changing existing law is “a righteous cause dealing with the sanctity of human life,” said Karen Johnson, co-founder of the Black Alliance of Thurston County, who requested the bill. Passing the bill would help build trust between law enforcement and their communities, she said.
Moscoso said he didn’t expect the bill to gain much traction in the Legislature this year, but said he wants to continue discussing the issue with prosecutors, law enforcement and others to figure out compromise legislation that can be introduced next session.
The committee also heard House Bill 2882 that requires law enforcement to collect data on incidents where officers use deadly force, and House Bill 2908 that would create a legislative task force on policing standards.
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