by Deborah Jacobs
Giovonn Joseph-McDade was a 20-year-old Green River College student when Kent Police officer William Davis shot him to death after a vehicle chase in June 2017. According to his mother, Sonia Joseph, Giovonn was a humble kid with a passion for sports, especially football, who kept fit, healthy, and positive, and had three younger brothers who loved and looked up to him.
On Jan. 12, the House Public Safety Committee in Olympia heard public testimony on House Bill 1054 (HB 1054), legislation that has the potential to save lives like Giovonn’s, needlessly and tragically taken at the hands of police. HB 1054 deals with multiple police tactics that have resulted in the loss of life and injury to the people of Washington state, including a ban on vehicle pursuits. It’s a bill that deserves a vote on the House floor as soon as possible and in its strongest form.
After a Kent Police officer initially stopped Giovonn for having an outdated license plate and looking “suspicious,” Giovonn drove away from the stop. Two police vehicles pursued and rammed into Giovonn’s car in an effort to gain control, finally broadsiding him in a cul-de-sac. Officer Davis then exited his car and shot twice into Giovonn’s car, killing the unarmed young man.
The problem with vehicle pursuits isn’t just the significant danger they present to the safety of all involved, including innocent bystanders, but that they often escalate the situation, impacting suspect and officer mindset, mood, and behavior in the heat of the chase.
HB 1054 limits the circumstances under which police can engage in car chases. Under the proposed law, police could initiate a vehicular pursuit if the situation involves the commission of a violent or sexual offense, if the pursuit is necessary to identify or apprehend the person, if the risks of failing to apprehend the person outweigh the risks of the chase, and if they receive approval from the chain of command. In addition, the bill prohibits officers from firing at moving vehicles unless facing an imminent threat from the use of a deadly weapon.
There are many other lives to save with the provisions of HB 1054. For example, the bill includes a ban on chokeholds and neck restraints. Unarmed Tulalip Tribes member Cecil Lacy was killed in September 2015 by Snohomish County sheriff’s deputy Tyler Pendergrass, who held Lacy face down on the ground and put his weight on him. Witnesses reported that Lacy’s haunting last words before he lost consciousness were “I can’t breathe.” In March 2020, under similar circumstances, Tacoma Police killed unarmed Manny Ellis, whose last words were also “I can’t breathe.” His death was ruled a homicide by the Pierce County Medical Examiner, resulting from “hypoxia due to physical restraint.”
HB 1054 also prohibits the use of unleashed police dogs for the purpose of arresting or apprehending. Nationwide, the savagery in some uses of police dogs has received significant attention. According to reporting by The Marshall Project, “Many people bitten by police dogs were unarmed, accused of non-violent crimes or weren’t suspects at all.” The use of dogs also invokes and perpetuates this country’s long history of using dogs to attack and terrorize African American people.
Locally, we have cases like that of Adrian Damon Sims, a suspect who was already handcuffed in police custody in October 2017 when the Lakewood Police allowed its dog to bite and wound Sims on his limbs, neck, torso, and stomach. Similarly, in May 2016, a police dog chased suspect Urbano Valazquez into a crawl space and pulled him out by his left arm, severely and permanently injuring him. King County recently settled his claim for $100,000.
HB 1054 also seeks to finally prohibit the use of military equipment by police agencies. Tanks and other weapons have been made accessible by the federal government through a program called 1033. For many years now, the militarization of police has concerned those who have faced these weapons, including Washington state residents. Just last month, the Thurston County Sheriff’s Office brought its MRAP, a military tactical vehicle, to protests in downtown Olympia, to the cheers of Trump supporters and the terror of those opposing them. Weapons of war have no place on the streets of Washington’s cities and towns. Unfortunately, during an executive session on Jan. 21, the House Public Safety Committee eroded the strength of this provision by voting to exclude armored vehicles and armored helicopters from the list of banned military equipment.
The tragic killing of Breonna Taylor last March brought much-needed awareness to the danger of “no-knock” warrants. Busting into homes without notice threatens the safety of all involved. HB 1054 prohibits no-knock warrants. If passed, Washington will join Oregon and Florida in banning the practice.
Finally, HB 1054 also includes important protections for the protesting masses, including a ban on the use of tear gas and provisions to stop officers from intentionally obstructing identifying information on their uniforms. Both issues arose during Seattle’s recent round of uprisings, with images of a tear-gassed child making international news.
HB 1054 is just one of a package of critical policing reforms introduced in this legislative session. Behind each provision of HB 1054 are the stories of individuals who lost their lives, of family members who lost loved ones, and of countless others whose lives were irrevocably changed by police violence. For each bill, for each detail, we have a name and a mom like Sonia Joseph fighting through grief and trauma to speak out, to educate, and to implore our leaders to end business as usual when it comes to policing.
Now it’s our legislators’ time to say their names and pass these bills.
Deborah Jacobs is a civil liberties and human rights advocate, police practices expert, and executive director of the Ernest Becker Foundation.
Featured Image: A young boy draws with chalk at a vigil in north Minneapolis on Sunday, June 24, 2018, following the police killing of Thurman “Jun” Blevins. (Image is attributed to Emma Fiala under a Creative Commons 2.0 license.)
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