One focus of the legislature in the 2021 session was police accountability and reform. Auburn legislators were the primary sponsor of six of the sixteen bills addressing law enforcement reforms.
HB 1054 (Johnson) – Setting a baseline of acceptable police tactics and equipment
HB 1203 (Johnson) – Concerning community oversight boards
HB 1267 (Entenman) – Concerning investigation of potential criminal conduct arising from police use of force.
HB 1507 (Entenman) – Authorizes the Attorney General’s Office to investigate and prosecute crimes involving deadly use of force by police
SB 5135 (Das) – Authorizes civil cause of action for falsely summoning police
Developing Reform Bills
House Public Safety Committee Chair Rep. Roger Goodman (D-Kirkland, 45-LD) assembled a Policing Policy Leadership Team designed to strengthen police accountability and transparency, along with improving police and community relations. The leadership team is made up of members from the Black Members Caucus, Reps. Debra Entenman ((D-Kent, 47-LD), Jesse Johnson, and John Lovick (D-Mill Creek, 44-LD), and the Members of Color Caucus, Reps. My-Linh Thai (D-Bellevue, 41-LD), Bill Ramos (D-Issaquah, 5-LD), and Debra Lekanoff (D-Bow, 40-LD).
The Policing Policy Leadership Team composed approximately 65 bill ideas around police reform. They later narrowed it down to 13 priority bills. Eight bills in the house, and five in the senate. The Policing Policy Leadership Team worked with major community organizations including Washington Coalition on Police Accountability, Washington for Black Lives, and representatives from law enforcement unions.
Rep Johnson said the primary goal was to rethink accountability and transparency, as well as training and developing a broader scope of public safety that includes safer tactics and less-lethal alternatives. He added that they were also looking for ways to rebuild trust between police and communities.
Nationwide protests against police brutality and racial inequality shed light on the need for police reform. Despite this, Rep. Johnson shared the work toward that reform has been highly politicized, with emotionally charged meetings. Johnson said there’s been a lot of Zoom meetings late into the night with people on both sides of the spectrum when it comes to police reform.
For Rep. Johnson, it’s about “protecting and preserving human life. I really feel that’s [the] highest priority for police officers. I believe that a lot of times bad policing comes from bad policy and if we fix the policy, we will be able to have a more robust police department, police force, across the state.”
Building on I-940
Police reform Initiative 940 (I-940) was approved by Washington voters in 2018 and went into effect the following year. Since its 2019 implementation only one officer, Auburn Police officer Jeff Nelson, has been charged under the I-940 standards. Nelson shot Jesse Sarey during an altercation on May 31, 2019. Sarey died the next day.
“We are now evolving from I-940. It was meant to put in place the absolute floor minimum standards, not the ceiling,” Johnson said.
Hearing from Stakeholders
Each bill put before the legislature had public and committee hearings, allowing those supporting and opposing the bill to be heard.
Supporters of the police reform bills in the House and Senate consisted of the sponsors, community advocates and organizations, and private citizens. Those testifying referenced local and national cases of violent police incidents. Family members of those lost to fatal police encounters testified, sharing their loved one’s stories and how they have been impacted.
Concerns raised by those opposing bills, or who expressed an opinion of ‘other,’ included cost, officer and citizen safety, restricting law enforcement tools, and a reluctance to non-police or private citizens being a part of an investigation’s processes. An overarching concern expressed by many in opposition is the potential loss of officers and increased difficulty in recruitment.
Some of those that testified against a bill stated they might support a future, amended version of the bill they were testifying for.
Ensuring Accountability Through Oversight
James McMahon, policy director with the Washington Association of Sheriffs & Police Chiefs (WASPC) testified at the January hearing for HB1203. McMahon opened stating his ‘unfortunate’ opposition to the bill before reciting several reasons for his opposition. “Specific to this bill, we do feel it’s important to recognize that under existing structures every local law enforcement agency is already subject to civilian oversight.”
McMahon also responded to concern that current oversight committees are not working. “we’ve heard some of the challenges in Spokane, but I think that’s a fairly unique situation that Spokane can also handle itself. This bill requires community oversight boards, exclusively in those jurisdictions that have decided not to do so.”
Joseph Martino, Director of Ontario Canada’s Special Investigations Unit (SIU) testified in support of HB1267. Ontario’s SIU was established in 1990 in response to public pressure for a system in which serious incidents involving the police were investigated by an independent civilian agency.
Martino shared the unit worked through initial obstacles and improved over time. The unit’s continued improvement, he explained, was made possible by “the infusion of more resources and the enactment of a detailed legislative framework to guide investigations.”
Police Reform on a Local Level
Though HB1203 did not make it out of committee, Johnson’s two other bills that ban certain police tactics such as chokeholds (HB1054) and adopt a de-escalation standard that makes deadly force a last resort (HB1310) passed both chambers. Each bill has been sent to the Governor for a chance to be signed into law.
Rep Johnson explained HB1203 and HB1267 were designed to “work really well together because 1267’s scope is on criminal investigations and police use of deadly force and community oversight boards 1203 is designed to give [the] community a voice in public complaints and administrative investigations of use of force at local levels.”
The goal of HB1203 was to help maintain transparency and accountability on the local level. Any city or law enforcement agency can create a community oversight board. Allowing that board to review and investigate public complaints will do exactly that. However, Johnson said, “it’s important that the oversight committee be reflective of the community in terms of diversity. It cannot be made up of current law enforcement officers or it defeats the entire purpose.”
Washington Coalition for Police Accountability member Fred Thomas, whose son was killed by police in
2013 told Washington News Service that the public’s involvement in holding law enforcement accountable is important going forward. “There are going to be departments who just are not going to follow the new rules if nobody is watching them and call them out on it,” he said. “So, it’s time for the public to actually watch and demand that things are done correctly.”
The Auburn police department launched the Auburn Police Advisory Committee in fall 2020. The committee meets once a month to review items of concern and provide feedback to Police Chief Dan O’Neil and the department. Chief O’Neil provided an update to the city council in February (watch) and APAC members presented to the council in March (watch).
Reaction to Reform
“Washington State law enforcement must continue to improve policies, training, culture, and transparency moving forward,” WASPC Executive Director Steven D. Strachan said. “WASPC is committed to working with policymakers and community stakeholders to further this goal.”
Thomas said one of the bills also ensures that more citizens are involved in oversight. It creates five positions for community members on the Criminal Justice Training Commission. He said the public’s involvement in holding law enforcement accountable is important going forward.
“There are going to be departments who just are not going to follow the new rules if nobody is watching them and call them out on it,” he said. “So, it’s time for the public to actually watch and demand that things are done correctly.”