By Paul Kiefer
Tuesday marked a crucial deadline for bills in the Washington State legislature: the final opportunity for bills to pass from the house to the senate, or vice versa. The cutoff date thinned the herd of police accountability bills introduced this year, though most key proposals—including bills that would impose stricter guidelines for police use-of-force and lower barriers to de-certifying police officers—are still moving forward.
Proposals that won’t move forward include a bill (HB 1202) sponsored by Rep. My-Linh Thai (D-41, Mercer Island) that would have allowed victims of police misconduct or their families to sue police officers and police departments. The bill would have effectively eliminated the ‘qualified immunity’ protection that prevents individuals from suing government employees unless the plaintiff can prove that the employee violated a person’s “clearly established” rights.
The bill, originally introduced in the House Civil Rights and Judiciary Committee, received support from several statewide and national police accountability groups, including the ACLU of Washington, but faced opposition from both the Washington State Association of Counties and the Association of Washington Cities, which raised concerns that increasing the liabilities of cities and counties—which would bear the costs of civil suits against their police officers—would strain their budgets and limit their insurance options.
Enoka Herat, the Police Practices and Immigration Counsel for the ACLU of Washington, told PubliCola that the cities and counties that opposed the bill have misplaced priorities. “Cities and counties should play a role in reducing misconduct and ensuring that there are good policies in practices in place,” Herat said, “both in order to avoid liability and to do the right thing.” Herat added that the proposal “added teeth” to other police accountability bills that are moving forward in the legislature.
Rep. Jesse Johnson’s (D-30, Federal Way) HB 1203, proposing the creation of “community oversight boards” to investigate police misconduct in jurisdictions across the state, also failed to move forward to the state senate. The bill would have required all existing civilian-led oversight bodies in Washington—including Seattle’s Office of Police Accountability—to civilianize their investigative staff and relocate out of law enforcement agencies. The bill’s prospects dimmed when some police accountability experts raised concerns about the proposal’s impact on existing police oversight bodies, and about the 120-day cap the bill would place on misconduct investigations.
A third bill (SB 5134) that would have drawn a distinction between law enforcement unions and other labor groups, sponsored by Sen. Jesse Salomon (D-32, Shoreline), lost momentum long before the March 9 deadline. The proposal would have prohibited law enforcement unions from using the collective bargaining process to limit police oversight, and it would have effectively eliminated the ability of police officers facing discipline to appeal their case to an arbitrator—a specially licensed attorney who can approve of, reduce, or overturn a department’s disciplinary decision.
Facing strong opposition from statewide labor groups, Salomon’s bill never moved out of the state senate’s Labor and Tribal Affairs committee. Erin Goodman and LaRond Baker, the co-chairs of Seattle’s Community Police Commission, told PubliCola they are “disappointed” that Salomon’s proposal fail to gain traction. “That legislation would have allowed communities across Washington State to implement strong, civilianized police accountability systems without fear of those reforms being undermined by police contracts,” they said in a joint statement.
The list of police accountability legislation moving forward in the state legislature is much more extensive.
Senate Bill 5055, sponsored by Sen. Joe Nguyen (D-34, West Seattle), would standardize the statewide process for choosing arbitrators to review police discipline to increase the efficiency of the appeals process; the version that passed to the state house will also require arbitrators to take law enforcement training courses—including so-called “shoot/don’t shoot training”—and training on racism and implicit bias.
It includes two bills sponsored by Johnson, HB 1054 and HB 1310, that would set stricter guidelines for police tactics and equipment, including by limiting, but not banning outright, the use of tear gas and requiring police officers to “exhaust available and appropriate de-escalation” techniques and “use only the minimal degree of physical force necessary” during confrontations. While most of the restrictions included in the bills are already included in Seattle Police Department policy, the bills would create statewide standards, albeit without the years of sustained pressure and federal oversight that prompted Seattle’s policy changes.
Another key proposal, SB 5051, originally sponsored by Sen. Jamie Pedersen (D-43, Seattle), would empower the state’s Criminal Justice Training Commission, which gives law enforcement officers licenses to practice in Washington, to suspend or revoke the licenses of officers in cases of misconduct without the approval of the officer’s employer.
“At the halfway mark,” said Anne Levinson, a retired municipal court judge and one of the key advocates behind this year’s slate of police accountability legislation, “things are looking pretty good for new state laws that will lead to meaningful improvement in law enforcement accountability.”