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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

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Debbie Novak: Bill would help put check on police violence

By Debbie Novak

By Debbie Novak

On the 7th of each month, from noon to 1 p.m., I go to the Spokane courthouse and talk to people about my family’s experience and the need for police accountability. Feb. 7 was the 61st such march. My son David Novak was shot and killed by a Spokane City Police officer on Jan. 7, 2019. David was shot in the back. He was unarmed. He had committed no crime. Another young man, Robert Bradley, was shot and killed by two Spokane Police officers on Sept. 4, 2022 – two of the same officers that were at David’s incident. Although Robert Bradley was killed more than 15 months ago, the prosecuting attorney has still not rendered a decision on his death.

Losing your child or your brother, father, uncle, nephew to unnecessary police violence – as hundreds of us have across Washington state – is devastating. But when you face barrier upon barrier to seeking accountability for the actions of police, it adds salt to our never healing wound. There is no path to justice because of the way the system protects law enforcement.

Despite being ranked second in the nation for the highest number of police killings per capita, the Spokane Police Department police have almost never been found to be “unjustified” in their actions that caused a death or use of excessive force.

When it comes to holding police accountable for illegal use of deadly force, a good analogy is the fox “guarding” the hen house. Local prosecuting attorneys work side by side on a daily basis with the same officers that they are required to make a determination on in a use of force incident. Our prosecuting attorneys are beholden to police and the police guild for contributions for their campaigns. This is an obvious conflict of interest.

One of the biggest challenges families who have lost loved ones to police violence face is the lack of transparency and independence involved in the process. When people in authority violate the rights of those they have power over, who believes a just outcome is possible if they investigate themselves? It isn’t the prosecuting attorney’s job to decide if an officer is guilty or not, it is to determine if there is enough evidence to try that officer before their peers or before a jury. But because of the inherent conflicts of interest, prosecution of police violence is extremely rare. Prosecuting attorneys, just like police, need to be held accountable.

This year, Washington lawmakers have the opportunity to create the kind of systemic change we need. House Bill 1579 would establish a mechanism for independent prosecutions within the Office of the Attorney General of criminal conduct arising from police use of force where a homicide occurs. This measure will help assure impacted families, the public and the officers involved, that a decision to prosecute was made based on an independent review of the evidence.

When our family members are profiled and gunned down, it is a blatant disregard for human life. Because of the lack of systems to hold police accountable, the public will continue to be at risk of becoming victims of misconduct and illegal deadly force by the very people who are supposed to protect us. Until there is independence in the systems responsible for investigating and prosecuting misconduct, we won’t have accountability for law enforcement’s use of deadly force. Families will be left with no pathway to justice for the loss of our loved ones. This system leaves a family feeling helpless.

Nothing can bring David or Robert back, but increasing police accountability will help prevent more families from losing their loved ones to unnecessary police violence. Establishing an statewide independent prosecutor will help put a stop to the practice of sweeping it under the rug when it happens. As a good friend of mine recently said, “What are they afraid of?” This will lighten the workload of our prosecuting attorneys, be a cost savings to local governments and serve as some measure of restoring faith in the justice system.

Debbie Novak lives in the Spokane area and is a member of the Washington Coalition for Police Accountability. Novak has worked in law enforcement as a dispatcher with the Spokane Police Department.