What Became of the Legislature’s Big Plans for Police Reform?

Washington State Capitol (Creative Commons)

By Paul Kiefer

At the beginning of the legislative session in January, police accountability appeared to be front and center on many legislators’ agendas. By the time the session ended last Sunday, lawmakers had narrowed a broad array of police reform proposals to a core list of bills that expands the state’s role in police oversight and tactics, although some efforts to address gaps in police oversight—particularly police union contracts—fell short.

The agency that will play an enforcement role in the legislature’s police reform efforts is the state’s Criminal Justice Training Commission (CJTC), a group of civilians and law enforcement officers appointed by the governor that has the power to issue—and revoke—licenses to work as a law enforcement officer in Washington. On Sunday, the legislature sent a bill to Gov. Jay Inslee that will expand the CJTC’s authority to investigate officers for misconduct and suspend or revoke their licenses, a process known as decertification.

The legislation, originally sponsored by Senators Jamie Pedersen (D-43, Seattle) and Manka Dhingra (D-45, Bellevue), empowers the commission to discipline officers at their own discretion; under prior state law, the CJTC had to wait until a law enforcement agency fired an officer before considering whether to revoke the officer’s license, which allowed problematic officers to transfer to new agencies to escape consequences for misconduct.

Lawmakers passed new restrictions barring police officers from firing at moving vehicles, prohibiting judges from issuing so-called “no-knock warrants,” and limiting the contexts in which officers can initiate car chases or use off-leash police dogs.

The law will also require law enforcement agencies to report any serious use-of-force incidents to the commission, as well as any misconduct allegations or criminal charges of which their officers are found guilty. The commission would use that information to identify officers whose misconduct is serious enough to merit disciplinary action, including decertification.

Notably, the bill will alter the CJTC’s makeup, reducing the number of law enforcement representatives on the commission from ten to six and increasing the number of community representatives from two to seven. In total, the commission will grow from 16 to 21 members; other additions include a civilian police oversight expert. Members of the public will also be able to search a new CJTC database to track officers’ disciplinary and employment history.

The CJTC’s expanded enforcement power provides the teeth to another new set of laws regulating police tactics, equipment and uses of force. Those include new restrictions barring police officers from firing at moving vehicles, prohibiting judges from issuing so-called “no-knock warrants,” and limiting the contexts in which officers can initiate car chases or use off-leash police dogs.

The legislature also took action to adjust the state’s standards for police use of force, passing a bill that requires officers to exhaust all alternatives before using deadly force. Another new law will require officers to intervene when they see colleagues using force inappropriately—and allows departments to discipline officers for failing to intervene. Officers who violate these new laws could face discipline from their department; if not, the CJTC can make use of its broadened mandate to suspend or de-certify officers for breaching the state’s new standards.

One new measure will streamline the process for requesting a protection order against an abuser or stalker and allows victims of abuse or harassment to file petitions for protection orders and attend court hearings remotely.

A new state Office of Independent Investigations, housed in the governor’s office, will also play a role in Washington’s expanded police oversight structure. The office, staffed by a group of civilian investigators and a civilian director, will be able to review uses of deadly force by police officers in any jurisdiction in the state beginning July 1, 2022; the office will also be able to investigate older incidents if new evidence emerges. However, the new law sets a 120-day cap on the length of investigations by the office, and it will not have the authority to issue discipline or file charges against officers. The office’s investigators will prepare reports on statewide use-of-force trends for the governors’ office that could shape future policy.

Legislators also passed bills expanding the rights people have when they interact with police officers. Those measures include a new law requiring young people to speak to an attorney before agreeing to allow an officer to question them or search their belongings. Lawmakers also established a statewide crisis response hotline—using the number 988—that could eventually dispatch behavioral health professionals to respond to people experiencing mental health crises; when the person in crisis is armed, the behavioral health professionals would respond alongside law enforcement.

Next year, lawmakers will likely revisit unresolved debates about the expansive power of police unions, in addition to concerns about police tactics—namely traffic stops for minor infractions—that didn’t rise to the surface until April.

Legislation passed this year that will impact the state’s Department of Corrections and county courts, including a measure that streamlines the process for requesting a protection order against an abuser or stalker and allows victims of abuse or harassment to file petitions for protection orders and attend court hearings remotely.

Some more ambitious reform efforts faltered midway through the legislative session. A proposal by Sen. Jesse Salomon (D-32, Shoreline) to forbid cities from accepting police union contracts that restrict police oversight and to limit police officers’ avenues for disciplinary appeals failed to move out of the senate; in its place, the legislature passed a much less transformative law changing the process by which the state’s Public Employee Relations Commission (PERC) chooses the attorneys who review officers’ appeals. Another proposal by Rep. My-Linh Thai (D-41, Bellevue) to allow people injured by police misconduct to sue for damages also failed to move this year.

This year’s legislative session left some business unfinished. Next year, lawmakers will likely revisit unresolved debates about the expansive power of police unions, in addition to concerns about police tactics—namely traffic stops for minor infractions—that didn’t rise to the surface until April. And a last-minute compromise by lawmakers to re-criminalize low-level drug possession after the state supreme court voided Washington’s existing possession laws in February resulted in legislation that will expire in two years, forcing lawmakers to revisit the question once they reconvene next January.

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