Significant police reform on track in legislature
March 25, 2021
Limits on the use of force by police and investigations of officers who have a pattern of misconduct continue to make their way through the Legislature, with some bills winning broad approval and with some passing only on party line votes.
While all agree on the need to review police procedures, some, mainly Republicans, worry the state is going too far in trying to rein in police tactics.
Use of force
A ban on military-grade equipment and neck restraints by police officers continues to gain momentum in the Legislature after HB 1054 passed the House in a 54-43 vote Feb. 27.
Those opposed said the bill would remove less-lethal options for officers, increasing chances of police custody deaths.
“We are pressing more toward the use of lethal force, and that is a matter of great concern,” Rep. Jim Walsh, R-Aberdeen, said during the House discussion.
Laws on excessive force would also come in the form of SB 5066, which requires officers to intervene and report if they see a colleague using unnecessary force on a suspect.
"This bill is a step in the right direction but will not fully address the institutional racism that exists in law enforcement agencies," said Sakara Remmu of the Washington Black Lives Matter Alliance.
Law enforcement would also have stricter guidelines on permissible use of force under HB 1310, which passed the House in a 55-42 vote.
Dissenters, mostly Republican, agreed with the intent of the bill, but said it would ignore events during which force was necessary to arrest someone.
“This bill presents unreasonable expectations of law enforcement,” Rep. Gina Mosbrucker, R-Goldendale, said during the House vote.
Another law would establish a mandate for an in-state university to collect information about how and when officers used force against someone, as well as demographics on those involved in the incident.
SB 5259 saw bipartisan support when it passed out of the Senate, and heard public testimony in the House Public Safety Committee March 16.
Bills to address the training and certification processes of law enforcement also continue to move through the Legislature. Major reform to the Criminal Justice Training Commission will come in the form of SB 5051, which expands the CJTC’s powers to decertify an officer based on a pattern of misconduct.
The commission sets standards for agencies on law enforcement certification. This law would also require a more representative membership, meaning the commission must include more people from underrepresented communities.
“We believe impacted communities should have a place at the table, not just to sit there, but to be engaged and do the work and contribute,” said Po Leapai, member of the Washington Coalition for Police Accountability, during a March 11 public hearing.
A grant program to encourage outreach between several Washington counties and their respective law enforcement agencies appeared March 19 in the House Public Safety Committee.
SB 5353 received support from both Democrats and Republicans, unanimously passing the Senate on March 9.
HB 1088 passed both the House and Senate in more bipartisan votes and now heads to Gov. Jay Inslee’s desk for approval. The law requires prosecutors to disclose during litigation if an officer facing discipline is on a Brady list, a record kept by prosecutors on officers with records of untruthfullness, or other issues affecting their credibility.
A law allowing the State Auditor to ensure agencies are following correct procedures in their investigations also passed the House and is likely to make it to the Senate for a floor vote after lawmakers vote on the bill in the Senate Ways & Means Committee.
Also likely to make it to the governor’s desk is HB 1001, which garnered bipartisan support for its initiative to hire more officers from underrepresented communities. Public testimony was mostly in support of the measure.
Despite sweeping changes coming to law enforcement oversight, a bill to increase the qualified age of a law enforcement applicant to 23 died while still in committee. SB 5089 lost support from lawmakers who said they were concerned that it would reduce the number of candidates who apply for law enforcement jobs.
“Recruitment today for new applicants in law enforcement is already behind,” said Sen. Jim McCune, R-Graham, during the executive session Jan. 28.
Investigating law enforcement
An independent office of law enforcement investigations is likely to make its way to the governor’s desk, though it passed the House with a Democrat-led 57-39 vote.
HB 1267 would establish an independent panel to evaluate incidents of alleged misconduct, though it would not hold prosecutorial power.
Those opposed to the bill, like Rep. Brad Klippert, R-Kennewick, said it would not accomplish accountability because it would focus too much on equity, not what he called equality.
“This bill seems to suggest that now, when I go to work each day, I need to keep a numbers count … based on the color of their skin,” Klippert said.
The panel would not include law enforcement and would have to include representatives from impacted families, researchers and communities of color.
“There’s a lack of trust in the process when law enforcement personnel are in charge of investigating their own behavior,” Tacoma Mayor Victoria Woodards said in support of the bill.
A state requirement to establish a rotating panel of arbitrators and a roster for data during disciplinary procedures would also happen if SB 5055 passes the House Labor & Workplace Standards Committee.
“It increases transparency of arbitration decisions by posting it,” Sen. Joe Nguyen, D-West Seattle, said. “It also allows us to collect the data we need to make informed decisions.”
The bill saw widespread support from both law enforcement and citizens.
Despite lawmakers backing 5055, another bill limiting bargaining between law enforcement ombuds died while still in committee. SB 5436 specifically limited bargaining over disciplinary reports within agencies.
Other bills that died in committee included: HB 1202, which called for an automatic civil action against anyone injured by police use-of-force; and HB 1262 which added requirements for hiring peace officers.