Lawmakers find common ground on prosecuting police officers

“But given how far the parties have traveled, they don’t seem likely to turn back anytime soon.”

  • Tuesday, March 20, 2018 10:54am
  • Opinion

To fully appreciate a peace accord reached last week on rewriting state law on the use of deadly force by police, consider the intensity of the conflict between the parties 15 months ago.

Two dozen people tasked by the Legislature to provide guidance gathered for a final time in November to settle on recommendations.

They represented those who write state laws, those who enforce them and those upon whom they are enforced. And they had spent months in search of a narrow peninsula of common ground where Washington residents could rest assured of a fair and just review process each time a cop took a life.

On this decisive day task force members engaged in a raw and unfettered public demonstration of democracy, sometimes impolite and other times emotional. There were insinuations of racism and cop-blaming. Most of the day they spent talking at each other rather than to each other.

What resulted was a split decision in the panel’s final report, no revisions in law in the 2017 legislation session and then Initiative 940, which if it gets on the ballot this fall and is passed, will make it easier to prosecute an officer with a crime after an incident in which they wrongfully kill someone.

Then came last Tuesday’s moment of Zen at a meeting of the House Public Safety Committee.

Representatives from law enforcement and from De-Escalate Washington, the force behind the initiative, announced the discovery of common ground. They now agreed on how to rewrite existing state law in ways that will open the door a little wider for prosecuting officers without pushing every one of them should they injure or kill someone in the line of duty.

It required lawmakers perform an unprecedented — and some think unconstitutional — procedural two-step in which they adopt the initiative in its entirety then immediately pass a second bill amending it with verbiage of the compromise.

What finally brought the parties together?

First, the initiative. Its architects hauled in $1.4 million and gathered 355,000 signatures to get on the ballot. Raising another couple million dollars for a campaign would be no problem and this ballot measure looked pretty unbeatable.

Most of those in law enforcement realized if they didn’t want to live under the language of the initiative, they needed to negotiate terms under which they could. So most — though not all — got on board.

Second, the brokers of peace, Rep. Roger Goodman, D-Kirkland, and Rep. Dave Hayes, R-Camano Island. They both served on the task force and never stopped looking for a beachhead of compromise. Last Tuesday, Goodman declared the wording everyone signed onto makes the initiative “more workable, more understandable.”

Those once feuding forces agreed.

It “truly strengthens and clarifies” the initiative in ways that will build bridges and trust in communities, said Heather Villanueva, a member of the leadership team for I-940, in the committee hearing.

“This bill brings us together,” said Steve Strachan, executive director, of the Washington Association of Sheriff’s and Police. “This is the best outcome for our state.”

It remained unclear last Wednesday morning if the two-step will be completed before legislators adjourn Thursday, March 8. If not, voters should get their say on I-940 in November. Presuming it passes, lawmakers could do their thing next session.

That path is messier and rife with risks. But given how far the parties have traveled, they don’t seem likely to turn back anytime soon.

P.S. On Thursday, March 8, the Legislature completed the procedural two-step by passing both Initiative 940 and House Bill 3003 to amend the initiative.

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