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State attorney general calls for new law requiring uses of deadly force to be reported

UPDATED: Tue., June 30, 2020

Washington state Attorney General Bob Ferguson looks on during a news conference on Dec. 17 in Seattle. He has joined a suit against the Trump administration over changes to environmental reviews of federal projects.  (Elaine Thompson / AP)
Washington state Attorney General Bob Ferguson looks on during a news conference on Dec. 17 in Seattle. He has joined a suit against the Trump administration over changes to environmental reviews of federal projects. (Elaine Thompson / AP)

OLYMPIA – In a report to the legislature released Tuesday, Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson recommends law enforcement across the state begin reporting all uses of deadly force.

The 13-page report lists policy recommendations that the state Legislature should look to adopt, including the creation of a public website that would have information on incidents of deadly force.

“These reforms strike me as an immediate first step that will have tangible benefits to the public,” Ferguson said in an interview.

The FBI created a national use-of-force reporting program in 2019, but because the program is voluntary, according to the report, only 10% of Washington agencies currently use it. The information in the program is also not publicly available.

Ferguson’s report recommends the state require agencies to use the FBI program, as it is the quickest way to implement this system. From there, the state should create a searchable website that contains the reported information, such as date and location, agencies involved, type of force and weapon, injuries, and demographic of officers and members of the public.

Ferguson was tasked in the state’s 2019 operating budget with developing a plan to collect use of force data. Currently, there is no centralized system for reporting and viewing information on use of deadly force, which is defined in the report as firearm discharges and other incidents that result in death or serious physical injury.

“It’s surprising to find out that there is no requirement that we report these incidents,” Ferguson said. “The public rightly expects transparency.”

Additional recommendations include a state-level audit of the use-of-force data and a requirement of other armed professionals, such as security guards, to report the use of deadly force to the Department of Licensing, which will post the information online.

More conversations will come about police reform, Ferguson said. Some issues will be straightforward while others will be controversial. This set of recommendations can easily be adopted, Ferguson said.

“If there’s any legislation that’s on a fast track, it’s the deadly force data-collection bill,” Rep. Roger Goodman, D-Kirkland, chair of the House Public Safety Committee, said.

The report comes as conversations about police reform and the use of deadly force are happening across the country. Ferguson announced last week he would conduct a statewide inquiry into all investigations regarding the use of deadly force in 2020. The announcement was prompted by the failure of Pierce County Sheriff’s Office to inform the state that multiple sheriff’s deputies were on the scene of death of Manuel Ellis, a Black man who died in Tacoma while being restrained by police in March.

Police reform will be a heavily discussed topic in the next legislative session, Senate Law and Justice Committee Chairman Jamie Pedersen, D-Seattle, said, adding he was confident lawmakers will pass police reform bills.

“I think it would be disappointing to everyone if the only reform that we came out of 2021 with is requiring more information using deadly force,” Pedersen said.

While Pedersen is not confident there will be a special session in the coming months, he said he has already had discussions with other legislators that include potential policy changes regarding police reform that could be done quickly.

Sen. Mike Padden, R-Spokane Valley, said he believed the issue will come up in special session but isn’t sure which, if any, reforms will be passed. Padden supports the reporting of the use of deadly force but said a lot of reforms have already been passed, referencing Initiative 940, which went into effect this year and helped regulate law enforcement’s use of deadly force.

“I think the intent of everybody would be to deal with it if there is a special session,” Padden said. “We will miss some opportunities to implement policy changes sooner if we wait until January.”

Goodman said police reform is at the top of his committee’s agenda and that he has already begun meeting with other legislators as well as members of the community to come up with legislative proposals.

He said Washington state has made progress, but it isn’t enough.

“There’s a lot of unfinished business and a lot more work to do,” he said.

Alison Holcomb, political director at American Civil Liberties Union of Washington, agreed. Having an independent analysis of the data surrounding the use of deadly force would be the next step, she said. Establishing patterns could allow for more recommendations involving training and accountability.

The ACLU will also push lawmakers to pass a law requiring independent investigations into all uses of deadly force.

The country is experiencing a political moment that is making it possible to allow old systems and structures to be changed, Holcomb said.

“And I think legislators are hungry for that,” she said.

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.

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