Editorial: Change law on police use of deadly force

By The Herald Editorial Board

A fatal shooting by an Everett police officer in 2009 offers some insight into why it’s necessary for state lawmakers to reconsider the language in state law regarding the use of deadly force by police.

The Use of Deadly Force in Community Policing joint task force last week completed a report to the Legislature and governor that included 15 recommendations, chief among them one seeking a change to state law that says an officer can’t be criminally charged in a shooting if he or she acted in good faith and without malice.

References to malice and good faith would be replaced with a criminal-liability defense for law enforcement officers who reasonably believed the use of deadly force was necessary when considering the facts and circumstances of the incident as well as the officer’s training and experience.

Washington state law has what is considered the nation’s most restrictive law in holding officers accountable for the unlawful use of deadly force because it’s nearly impossible for “malice” to be proved in court and “good faith” to be defined.

So much so that former Everett police officer Troy Meade — who fatally shot an intoxicated motorist, Niles Meservey, on June 10, 2009, in the parking lot of the Chuckwagon Inn — has been the only law enforcement officer in Washington to be charged in a fatal shooting in the past decade. A Seattle Times report in 2015 found 213 fatal shootings by police in the state during that same period, the vast majority deemed legally justified but others considered controversial.

Meade was tried for second-degree murder after he shot into the back of Meservy’s car, hitting him seven times. Meade claimed he feared for his life and believed the car was backing up. But a fellow officer testified in court that Merservy’s car was hemmed in on all sides by a fence and three vehicles, including Meade’s own patrol car.

The jury acquitted Meade of all criminal charges but under separate civil rules concluded that Meade did not shoot Meservy in self-defense. Meade was fired and his dismissal was upheld by an arbitrator who also concluded that Meade had other options besides the use of deadly force, including ducking behind a parked SUV that was to his left.

A less restrictive standard that didn’t require a jury to read Meade’s mind for malice or good faith might have resulted in a different verdict.

The law enforcement community is understandably leery of changes to the standard, and controversial legislation such as this faces uncertainty in a Legislature where power is divided among Republicans in the Senate and Democrats in the House.

But the Legislature should consider, if not adopt, this and other recommendations of the panel, especially those that could reduce the likelihood of police shootings in the future.

Among the committee’s other recommendations:

  • Collection and reporting of data from all law enforcement agencies and corrections officers on incidents where an officer’s weapon is fired;
  • More training for officers with an emphasis on de-escalation techniques, use of less-than-lethal force and judgment skills;
  • A grant program that would equip more local agencies and officers with less-than-lethal weapons;
  • A study and recommendations that increase the diversity of the state’s law enforcement agencies; and
  • Reduction of potentially dangerous encounters between police and people with mental health issues through increased funding for the state’s community mental health system.

The recommendations offered by the committee would bring Washington closer in line with the standards used in other states.

Some pressure on the Legislature exists in a proposed initiative, I-873, which also seeks to remove the references to malice and good faith from the deadly force law. Assuming it gets the required signatures, should the Legislature not act, the initiative would go to the ballot next year.

Unquestionably, the work of a law enforcement officers is exceedingly dangerous. We owe officers our thanks and our good will. But we also owe them clear standards and expectations for the job they do as well as the resources, training and support that will help them with those responsibilities.

Correction: An earlier version of this editorial included a proposed resolution that was not included in the final report. A proposed recommendation for a special prosecutor in cases of officer-involved fatal shootings was was favored by a majority of panel members but did not receive enough votes for inclusion in the final report.

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