Editorial: Send I-940 back to Legislature for better bill

A new standard for officer-involved shootings is needed, but lawmakers need a second try at a bill.

By The Herald Editorial Board

Amid legal arguments before the state Supreme Court — and a decision that appeared to confuse even the court’s justices — and the fact that not two but three sides have emerged with differing positions on Initiative 940, it would have been easy to lose sight of the problem that many were attempting to correct.

I-940 seeks to rewrite a standard for the use of deadly force by law enforcement officers that many believe makes it too difficult to prosecute an officer for an unjustified shooting. Washington state’s standard shields officers from prosecution so long as they have acted “without malice,” a standard that no other state in the nation uses.

Under that standard, according to investigations by The Seattle Times and The Guardian, more than 263 people have died in officer-involved shootings between 2005 and 2016. But in only one shooting did prosecutors file charges. In that case, the officer was acquitted.

Everett Police Officer Troy Meade, in a 2010 jury trial, was acquitted of second-degree murder and first-degree manslaughter charges in the death of Miles Meservey, who Meade shot through the rear window of the car Meservey was driving. The same jury, however, determined Meade had not acted in self-defense. Meade was fired a year later.

I-940 would remove the requirement to prove malice, adopting instead a “good faith” standard that offers two tests — one objective, the other subjective — basically weighing an officer’s actions against what a “reasonable officer” would do in the same situation.

I-940, advanced by the group De-Escalate Washington, would also require police receive violence de-escalation and mental health training, require officers to render first aid and mandate independent investigations of police use of deadly force.

Rather than seeking to place their initiative directly on the ballot, supporters of I-940 submitted the measure to the Legislature, which had one of three choices under the constitutional requirements for initiatives: approve the measure as written; reject it or do nothing, in which case the initiative would have appeared on the ballot; or propose an alternative and place it and the initiative on the same ballot and allow voters to choose which would become law, if either.

Lawmakers, joined by the initiative supporters and representatives of the law enforcement community, developed just such as alternative to I-940 that clarified the new standard’s language, eliminated some possibilities for unintended consequences and even added protection for officers that would have paid the legal defense costs of police who were cleared of charges by reason of justifiable homicide or self-defense.

The supporters of I-940 and many — although not all — law enforcement representatives supported the comprise, House Bill 3003, which passed House and Senate and was signed by the governor.

But rather than choose from the three options provided in state law, lawmakers went with a fourth, simply adopting the compromise and bypassing the voters. Mukilteo initiative promoter Tim Eyman filed suit, challenging the decision, and in August the state Supreme Court ruled — in a split decision — that only the original ballot measure, I-940, should go before voters.

While De-Escalate Washington and other supporters of I-940 supported the compromise, they now want voters to make I-940 law without delay. Its supporters include some notable representatives from law enforcement, including two retired Seattle police chiefs, Jim Pugel and Norm Stamper; King County Sheriff Mitzi Johanknecht and former King County Sheriff John Urquhart; and the Black Law Enforcement Association of Washington.

However, most law enforcement groups in the state are opposed to I-940, although there are distinctions between two camps.

The Washington Council of Police and Sheriffs (WACOPS), the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs and the Fraternal Order of Police have recommended a no vote of I-940, with the recommendation that state lawmakers again pass the compromise legislation when they return to Olympia in January.

Others, led by the Council of Metropolitan Police and Sheriffs, have urged a no vote on I-940, but also oppose the legislative compromise, though Mike Solan, a spokesman for the council told the editorial board that his group was willing to return to the table to seek a new compromise.

The editorial board supports the broad strokes of I-940, but the compromise that the Legislature passed, and was then rejected by the Supreme Court, would provide a standard for the use of deadly force and other provisions that would better protect both the public and police officers.

Supporters of I-940 are understandably wary that lawmakers will be able to pass the compromise legislation a second time. All 98 House representatives are up for re-election this November, as are 25 of the 49 senators. And HB 3003 narrowly passed the Senate by one vote.

Even if I-940 passes, lawmakers could adopt the compromise’s language, though it would require passage by two-thirds of each house.

Voting no on I-940 with the hope the Legislature quickly adopts the compromise requires a leap of faith, but one that is necessary to adopt legislation that can perform as intended and would survive a potential legal challenge.

We recommend a no vote on I-940, then an email or call to your state lawmakers urging passage of the compromise legislation.

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