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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Lawmakers look to introduce sweeping police reform legislative package in January

Washington state lawmakers set big police reform agenda for upcoming session.  (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)

OLYMPIA – A year after Initiative 940 and its amendments passed the Washington state Legislature, lawmakers are again proposing a sweeping police reform package that would include a de-escalation process, an independent investigative body for use of deadly force and a ban on certain police tactics.

Initiative 940, a law enforcement accountability package passed in 2018, was a first step, but for lawmakers and those on both sides of the issue, there’s still more to be done.

“We have every right to come before you and ask for changes,” Katrina Johnson, of the Washington Coalition for Police Accountability, who worked on the passage of I-940, told lawmakers in a House Public Safety Committee hearing last week. “We know its shortcomings, and we ask that you listen to us closely.”

The deaths of Black people at the hands of police, including George Floyd in Minneapolis in May, sparked nationwide protests and discussions about changes in policing and the criminal justice system.

“Now is the time to act upon the legislation that’s before you,” said the Rev. Walter Kendricks of Morningstar Baptist Church in Spokane. “It’s been too many years and too many people have died.”

Both the House and the Senate have been working to put together a reform package that leaders hope will be ready to be discussed on Day 1 of the legislative session. It was one of the most collaborative and early efforts on an issue that Senate Law & Justice Committee chair Jamie Pedersen, D-Seattle, said he has ever seen.

Along with pandemic relief, police reform and racial justice are top priorities this session, Senate majority leader Andy Billig, D-Spokane, said in a Nov. 23 news conference.

A police reform package will likely include legislation that would address a range of issues:

  • Ban or severely limit certain police tactics, such as chokeholds, neck restraints and the use of military equipment.
  • Implement a decertification process for officers who use deadly force.
  • Train officers to have a duty to intervene and report officers they see using unnecessary deadly force.
  • Create a database that would collect information on incidents involving use of deadly force.
  • Reform the independent investigations process that would create a new statewide investigations body to look into use of deadly force incidents.

The biggest question this session will be about the use of force and whether the threshold for when it is acceptable to use will be raised, House Public Safety Committee Chairman Rep. Roger Goodman, D-Kirkland, said.

After the death of Floyd, Goodman said many lawmakers realized that I-940 just scratched the surface of the problem.

However, discussions that started because of I-940 will be useful during this session.

“Having established relationships during the 940 process has laid the groundwork for the working relationships in this broader scale of reform,” Goodman said in an interview.

Since I-940, everyone’s sense of what’s necessary has changed, Pedersen said. For years, many lawmakers had assumed they needed to get police unions to agree with them in order to get legislation passed. This session, however, the idea of wanting more accountability for police officers who kill civilians has resonated with a critical mass of lawmakers, putting them in a different position than in previous years.

Activists who worked on I-940 and serve on the governor’s policing task force agreed.

“Yes, we are proud of 940,” said Nina Martinez, chair of the Latino Civic Alliance, “and yes we are committed to fixing the parts that are not working.”

Goodman said he expects some topics, such as changing police tactics, will be less controversial than others. The bill to ban or limit chokeholds, neck restraints and the use of military equipment is one Goodman said he hopes to hear on Day 1 and get pushed through quickly.

Despite the collaborative efforts behind these reforms, Goodman said he expects difficult discussions this session. The topics of collective bargaining and police unions, the use of deadly force and eliminating private arbitrators during lawsuits involving police will likely be controversial, he added.

These discussions already began in a House Public Safety Committee hearing Nov. 30.

Rep. Brad Klippert, R-Kennewick, questioned the idea of eliminating a law enforcement officers’ use of a private arbitrator in a use of force investigation and possible decertification process.

“If I choose to pin on a badge, I am giving up my right to constitutional due process,” said Klippert, a Benton County deputy and ranking member of the Public Safety Committee. “Is that what you’re suggesting?”

Klippert also seemed to disagree on the changes in tactics being discussed. He argued that a lateral vascular neck restraint, which does not affect a person’s windpipe but rather cuts off blood flow, is safer than a chokehold and can be a humane way to calm a situation.

Spokesmen for statewide police unions and training commissions could agree that reform was needed but disagreed on how to get there.

Many support increased data collection and reporting and an independent investigation process as long as it adheres to fair due process for both sides. Some also pushed for body cameras, something Spokane County commissioners are currently researching but few counties in the state have implemented.

Sue Rahr, of the Criminal Justice Training Commission, urged lawmakers to come up with a “more balanced approach to police reform.” Some of the proposed legislation, such as the creation of a statewide database, new training protocols and a new independent investigatory body, could be very expensive, Rahr said.

Goodman said in an interview that few of the proposals have a big price tag, as most have to do with changes in tactics. He did acknowledge that some proposals, such as a statewide database, expanding the decertification process and creating an independent investigation body, could be costly.

Prefiling for bills in the Legislature began Monday; the legislative session will officially begin Jan. 11.

Laurel Demkovich's reporting for The Spokesman-Review is funded in part by Report for America and by members of the Spokane community. This story can be republished by other organizations for free under a Creative Commons license. For more information on this, please contact our newspaper’s managing editor.