OLYMPIA — A much-divided state Supreme Court blew up an unusual compromise when it concluded that Initiative 940, which would rewrite Washington law on the use of deadly force by police, should be placed on the November ballot.
Those legal minds represented De-Escalate Washington, the coalition behind I-940 — the very folks who spent 2017 collecting the signatures needed to get the measure on the ballot in the first place.
I-940 is intended to ensure police are trained to use deadly force only when it’s unavoidable — and that they are prosecuted when the facts prove otherwise. Current law makes it difficult to convict an officer of a crime for an unjustified shooting unless there is a proven element of malice.
But the group later reached a compromise with those opposed to it, in the form of legislation that amended the original ballot measure. So when the Supreme Court put I-940 on the ballot unchanged, it was a victory they didn’t want.
It forces De-Escalate Washington into an election fight they worked hard to avoid.
Their lawyers contended the justices had two other options — either of which would have led to better outcomes, from the coalition’s perspective:
Or the court could have placed I-940 on the ballot alongside the alternative passed by state lawmakers and signed by Gov. Jay Inslee on the final day of the session. That legislation, House Bill 3003, was artfully crafted by a handful of legislators, leaders of De-Escalate Washington and members of law enforcement.
The compromise bill represented a moment of political zen. It was the kind of compromise rarely achieved on such a contentious matter of public interest. For De-Escalate Washington, it was an improved version of the initiative. Plus, it had the backing of many in the law enforcement community, who strongly opposed I-940.
But the justices blocked the compromise from the ballot, saying that lawmakers circumvented the state Constitution when they passed it.
That puts De-Escalate Washington in an untenable position heading toward the general election.
They need to restart the machinery of a campaign to pass I-940. They must convince voters that their ballot measure, warts and all, is good and necessary. They will likely need to defend it against criticism from law enforcement, including a few they had teamed up with on the now-discarded compromise.
“Our overall strategy hasn’t changed,” wrote Monisha Harrell, co-chair of the coalition and president of Equal Rights Washington, in an email Tuesday. “Initiative 940 is solid policy, and we like it and fully support it. It is the foundation of the consensus language that we were able to reach with law enforcement with HB 3003.”
Steve Strachan, executive director of the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs, and Teresa Taylor, executive director of the Washington Council of Police and Sheriffs, are two of those who worked on the compromise bill’s language.
They will be spending the next two months trying to defeat I-940. Their message will be that it is bad policy written by good people.
“We’ve sort of been forced into an adversarial initiative process that nobody wanted to be in,” Strachan said. “We know where the good policy is.”
Taylor said the council’s leaders place high value on the relationships built in recent months. Nonetheless, the mission the next two months is telling their members and the public why I-940 should be defeated.
If it passes, Taylor said, her group will be asking the governor to call a special session so lawmakers can amend it with language from the alternative. If it fails, she presumes the Legislature will move swiftly to enact the compromise bill.
“We are confident it is not going to be a problem,” she said.
Harrell didn’t comment on what lawmakers might do. De-Escalate Washington, she said, is going to stay focused on its primary goal.
“When we started this campaign,” she wrote, “we said that it was about saving lives, and building community trust.”