Ground-Breaking Police Accountability Bills Pass the House, Await Senate Consideration

by Chetanya Robinson

A bill that would ban law enforcement from using chokeholds and neck restraints on people, end no-knock warrants, and take military weapons out of police hands is up for a hearing in the Washington State Senate this week. Another would require police to de-escalate and use deadly force only when necessary, changing the standard currently enshrined in law.

The two bills, which were introduced in the state House by Representative Jesse Johnson (D-30) of Federal Way, join a number of others in the legislature that seek to strengthen police accountability.

Rep. Johnson’s specialty is in education and juvenile justice — not policing, per se. But he was inspired to introduce the bills after the police killings of George Floyd in Minneapolis and Manny Ellis in Tacoma — two Black men killed after being placed in a chokehold by police officers — and the shooting of Breonna Taylor, a Black woman killed by police who forced their way into her apartment in Louisville.

At the time, Johnson was one of only four Black legislators in Olympia. “I think there’s more of a call from the majority to reform the system than we’ve had in the past,” he said. 

The high number of police accountability bills introduced in the legislature this year represents “a direct response to people taking to the streets last summer,” said Enoka Herat, of the Police Practices and Immigrant Rights Counsel at the ACLU of Washington, which supports several of them. “They really run the spectrum of policy changes that I think would be foundational.”

Johnson’s HB 1054 bans tactics like no-knock warrants and chokeholds, prevents police officers from using unleashed dogs to apprehend people, bans military weapons, restricts use of tear gas by police departments, and prohibits officers from deliberately covering up identifying badge numbers. It also bans vehicle pursuits unless there is probable cause that the suspect committed a violent or sexual offense.

A public hearing for the bill took place in the Senate Committee on Law & Justice on March 11.

Representative Jesse Johnson (D-30) of Federal Way. Photo: Washington State House Democrats.

Each aspect of HB 1054, which in its original form before being modified in committee banned even more police tactics, was informed by the experience of someone directly affected by police violence. “Manny Ellis’s sister would weigh in about her experience throughout the core process with her brother’s case,” Johnson said.

In another case that influenced the legislation, a Kent police officer killed 20-year-old Giovonn Joseph-McDade in 2017, firing bullets into his car after failing to stop Joseph-McDade’s vehicle with a pursuit intervention technique.

“If this was in law before my son was killed, they probably would have mailed him a ticket and not started a pursuit,” said Joseph-McDade’s mother Sonia Joseph, a member of the Washington Coalition for Police Accountability. The organization centers the concerns of family members of people impacted by police violence, and supports five priority bills in the session this year.

Johnson says HB 1054 and other accountability bills were developed first with the help of community stakeholders including the Washington Coalition for Police Accountability and people directly impacted by police violence. Law enforcement organizations became involved in discussions only after a draft bill was finalized. 

As HB 1054 makes its way through the Senate, Johnson is adamant that the bans on chokeholds, neck restraints and no-knock warrants stay unmodified. “Those are the three pieces that we’re not willing to compromise on,” Johnson said. Law enforcement agencies have been pushing to allow exceptions for “exigent circumstances,” in which an officer could use these tactics if they believed they were in harm’s way. “We’re saying no, we want a complete ban on all three,” Johnson said.

“No-knock warrants are very much rooted in racism and are dangerous to the officers as well,” he added.

Another of Johnson’s bills that passed the House, HB 1310, establishes a standard for use of force by police officers. The state currently allows officers to use any means necessary to arrest someone who resists arrest.

The bill repeals this, instead requiring that officers exhaust de-escalation tactics first, and use deadly force only when necessary or as a last resort to prevent someone from killing or seriously hurting someone. 

Under current law, when a police officer kills someone, the killing is assessed based on each law enforcement agency’s current policies and state and local laws, said Herat of ACLU Washington, and whether or not disciplinary action is taken is usually based on what a “reasonable” officer would do.

“That standard has failed us,” Herat said. “What we’ve seen time and time again, [is that] each incident, each killing is ruled justified.”
HB 1310 also requires law enforcement to consider certain circumstances before using force, including the presence of children and whether a person has a disability, is experiencing a mental health crisis, or is pregnant. Requiring that an officer’s actions are necessary based on the totality of the circumstances would “shift the responsibility,” said Herat.

HB 1310  is scheduled for public hearing in the Senate Law and Justice Committee on March 16.

Johnson’s bills are two of five priority bills for the Washington Coalition for Police Accountability. Another, HB 1267, also passed the House and is scheduled for a public hearing in the Senate Law and Justice Committee on March 15. That measure would create an Office of Independent Investigations (OII) within the Governor’s office to investigate officers who use deadly force, or commit sexual assault, as well as in-custody deaths. The OII would undertake these investigations, rather than police departments investigating themselves.

Washington State has never decertified an officer — taken away their badge and gun — for using excessive force. A fourth priority bill, SB 5051, boosts the Washington state Criminal Justice Training Commission (CJTC), strengthening its ability to investigate officers and decertify them. It passed the Senate and is scheduled for executive session in the House Public Safety Committee on March 18. It would be one of the strongest such laws in the country if passed.

One priority bill, HB 1202, did not pass committee in the House. It would have allowed a person injured by a police officer who wins a favorable ruling in court to receive attorney’s fees and actual damages. It would also have allowed the state Attorney General’s office to investigate police officers with a pattern of abusive behavior or unconstitutional policing, and potentially bring a civil action against them to restrict those officers. “That’s a groundbreaking bill,” said Johnson. “Unfortunately, it looks like we’re not going to be able to hear it this year, we just don’t have the support or the votes.”

He hopes the legislature will take up the bill in the next session.

The five bills, while not the only police accountability bills in the legislature this year, were designed to work well together, along with other police accountability bills, including:

HB 1499, which did not pass committee, is aimed to provide behavioral health help to people with substance abuse disorders rather than sending them to prison.

SB 5066 required officers to intervene if they see a colleague using excessive force. It passed the Senate and is scheduled for executive session in the House Committee on Public Safety on March 18.

“There’s a lot of ideas that were brought this year that we really pushed for,” said Johnson. “We kind of shot for the moon and we’re hoping to land amongst the stars in a lot of these bills.” 

Johnson recommends that people who want to support the police accountability bills in the Senate should contact their local Senator, because support for the bills will likely be split down party lines, with a tight margin of success. “You only can afford to lose one, maybe two Democrats,” Johnson said. “Telling them about your lived experience and why this bill is important to you is very important in the process.”

Joseph said the police accountability bills must not be “watered down.”

“Everyone should have the same policing no matter what neighborhood you come from and no matter the color of your skin,” she said. “Any interaction with law enforcement, our goal is that Black and Brown children survive it and live to come home.”

Chetanya Robinson is a freelance journalist and interim editor-in-chief at the International Examiner. He enjoys reporting on the rich variety of life in Seattle, including the hyper-local stories of individual communities and neighborhoods. His work has also appeared in Real Change News, Crosscut, Seattle Weekly, and more. Find him on Twitter at @chetanyarobins.

Featured Image: Seattle Police Department officers at BLM protests. Photo by Alex Garland.

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