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Police accounability legislation advances

Outrage over deaths of citizens in police custody sparked efforts by lawmakers to address racial equity, hiring and training, and the use of force within law enforcement. Now, nearing the halfway point in the 2021 legislative session, the steps toward major reform of police tactics have gained support from both sides, though not without controversy.

“I wouldn't argue that we have complete agreement amongst all of them but we're continuing to work to bring people together and to move the bills,” said House Speaker Laurie Jinkins, D-Tacoma, in a press conference Feb. 22.

Lawmakers voted 28-21 to pass SB 5066 Feb. 23, a bill requiring officers to intervene if they see a colleague using excessive force. While it had Democratic support, some Republican lawmakers said it would deter recruitment into law enforcement.

“This bill will help keep communities safe and will provide the tools and support to reinforce a healthy culture in law enforcement,” said Sen. Manka Dhingra, D-Redmond, the sponsor of the bill, in a statement.

House Bill 1054, a highly-watched ban on several use of force tactics, is scheduled for a floor vote. The law would ban an officer from using chokeholds, most forms of tear gas and unleashing K-9 dogs on suspects. The bill remained largely unchanged from its original form.

“We are at a reckoning with police in this country, so I can’t see myself negotiating on those tactics,” said one of the bill’s sponsors, Rep. Debra Entenman, D-Kent, in an interview.

HB 1310, which narrows an officer’s ability to use deadly or other physical force against a suspect, is waiting to be scheduled for a floor vote, where it is expected to have a high chance of winning approval.

The Senate Ways & Means Committee voted Feb. 22 in favor of a bill that would require law enforcement agencies to report incidents of use-of-force and other demographic information to an in-state university.

This law, SB 5259, requires the school to create a detailed, interactive and public database with statistics on when an officer fires a weapon, uses less-lethal means of arresting a citizen and when an officer unleashes a canine on someone they intend to arrest. The university would also need to have both the officer and affected person’s age, gender, race and ethnicity on the database.

The Senate will vote on SB 5089, which raises the qualifying age of a law enforcement applicant to 23, and requires them to hold or be on the way to holding a bachelor’s degree.

The Ways & Means Committee members passed SB 5353 Feb. 22, which targets Spokane, Pierce, King, Okanogan, Yakima, Cowlitz, Chelan-Douglas, Walla-Walla, Benton-Franklin, Grant and Snohomish as recipients for a community-law enforcement engagement grant program. The grant would fund these counties’ efforts in neighborhood organizing and youth programs to increase public trust with law enforcement.

Sweeping reform to the Criminal Justice Training Commission will also have a chance to make it through the Senate, with lawmakers putting SB 5051 forward to expand the powers of the CJTC. Currently, the commission establishes standards and provides training to police and local corrections officers. It has the power to certify, and when necessary, to de-certify, officers. The law would also mandate that the commission must include more members from underrepresented communities.

“The public has the right to know if their tax dollars are paying for officers who have a known history of excessive use of force,” said Devon Connor-Green, who testified in support of the bill on behalf of the Washington Black Lives Matter Alliance during its hearing Feb. 1.

A similar bill to adjust training and hiring rules in the CJTC, sponsored by Sen. Jesse Salomon, D-Shoreline, will not move forward in the Legislature. Salomon told The Seattle Times he would try again next year, but said he was satisfied with the other training reform bills getting support.

SB 5135, crafted by Sen. Mona Das and intended to stop people from summoning a police officer for the purpose of intimidating or discriminating against someone, made it into the Rules Committee Jan. 22, but has yet to make it to the Senate floor for a vote.

Last week, House representatives passed three police accountability bills: HB 1088, 1089 and 1001. The first requires law enforcement agencies to tell attorneys if they found evidence in favor of the defendant in a case within 10 days of the discovery. HB 1089 requires the state auditor to ensure deadly force investigations follow all rules and procedures during the entirety of the investigation, and HB 1001 would establish a grant program to encourage agencies to hire more officers from historically underrepresented communities.

The establishment of an independent office of investigations within the governor’s office also has a high chance of making it to the House floor for a vote. Lawmakers voted in favor of HB 1267 in the House Committee on Appropriations Feb. 19.

Another bill poised to make it out of the House is HB 1202, which would automatically grant a cause of action for someone who was injured by forceful police tactics, meaning they would be able to seek civil action against the officer and any present officer who did not intervene. The court would have to pay for the court and attorney costs for the person, and the Attorney General could investigate officers if they suspect the incident represents a pattern of misconduct.

Other reform bills already passed out of the Senate include SB 5055, passed Feb. 10 in a 41-8 vote. If it moves on, it will establish an 18-member rotating panel of arbitrators who would hear and decide on officer disciplinary appeals, and ban officers from collective bargaining on these appeals.

Another law limiting collective bargaining over certain law enforcement records has yet to move to the floor for a vote, but SB 5436 garnered bipartisan support from lawmakers and still has a chance to pass.

Though many police accountability bills with the chance to become law have come from Democratic lawmakers, Republican-led bill HB 1262 got bipartisan support for its expansion of background checks for law enforcement applicants. The bill would add an “eye-based truth verification test,” a way of analyzing changes in pupil size and eye movement to consider credibility in the person.

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