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Police reform advocates see a top priority lapse in Washington Legislature

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Police reform advocates see a top priority lapse in Washington Legislature

Feb 27, 2024 | 9:12 pm ET
By Jerry Cornfield
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Police reform advocates see a top priority lapse in Washington Legislature
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The Washington state Capitol building, Feb. 19, 2024. (Bill Lucia/Washington State Standard)

Police accountability advocates are seething after the Washington Legislature balked again at empowering state attorneys to prosecute cases involving the use of deadly force by law enforcement officers.

Legislation establishing an Office of Independent Prosecutions in the Office of the Attorney General failed to advance out of the Democrat-led Senate Ways and Means Committee on Monday, the same panel that delivered the knockout blow in the 2023 session.

“We are going to usher in more people to a family you don’t want to be in – having your loved one killed by law enforcement,” said Katrina Johnson of the Washington Coalition for Police Accountability, whose cousin Charleena Lyles died at the hands of Seattle police in 2017.

Critics had argued the bill would usurp too much control from county prosecutors. And they contended the new office isn’t needed, pointing to the recent trial of three Tacoma police officers, in the 2020 death of Manuel Ellis, in a case brought by Attorney General Bob Ferguson.

But Rep. Monica Stonier, D-Vancouver, who sponsored the bill, said it marked an important step to build on prior police reform efforts. 

Lawmakers created an independent state agency in 2021 to investigate incidents where police use deadly force. Stonier said when legislators did this, they intended to pair the agency with the independent prosecution office to handle these cases. 

“This legislation is about accountability, justice, and restoring trust in our justice system. It’s the best way to ensure fairness and justice for victims of police violence and for the law enforcement officers involved,” Stonier said. 

“Our work on this issue is not finished,” she added.

Second attempt

After the legislation failed to advance last session, Stonier and supporters retooled it to pare the operating costs and the reach of the proposed agency. 

House Bill 1579 would have limited the scope of an independent prosecutor’s office to handling only cases arising from death investigations conducted by the state Office of Independent Investigations. When an investigation is completed, the bill envisioned that the independent state prosecutor and county prosecutors would review it concurrently and decide how to proceed.

But critics said a chief infirmity with the bill remained: that it eroded the control of local prosecuting attorneys to decide how cases are handled, possibly even crossing a constitutional line.

“I don’t think the modifications they made this year made a difference in the underlying policy concerns,” Russell Brown, executive director of the Washington Association of Prosecuting Attorneys, said Monday.

In the case of Ellis’ death, Gov. Jay Inslee directed the State Patrol to investigate and turn the findings over to Ferguson’s office.

“I think people understand this is already something that can happen,” Brown said. “It isn’t like they need to create a function or a mechanism unless the goal was to eliminate the county prosecutor (in these cases), which I think was the goal.”

‘Hot-button issue’

Johnson attributed the bill’s demise to lobbyists for law enforcement organizations “getting to lawmakers and fearmongering that it would undermine them and ruin their profession.”

Some Democratic senators on Monday did express concern that passing the bill would send a message that the Legislature doesn’t trust cops at a time when cities, counties and the state are having difficulty recruiting and retaining officers.

Ferguson, a Democrat who is running for governor, was publicly agnostic on the bill.

“We all have to realize it’s an election year,” Johnson said. “It’s a hot-button issue and nobody wants to touch it.”

Establishing an Office of Independent Prosecutions was one of three bills to increase police accountability that failed to advance through the Democrat-controlled Legislature this session.

The others were House Bill 1445 authorizing the attorney general to bring actions against any city or county law enforcement agency for violating state laws and House Bill 1062 restricting when cops can lie in interrogations.

One likely success for advocates pushing for more restrictions on police will be to ban officers from hogtying people in custody. Ellis died while hog-tied facedown on a Tacoma sidewalk, pleading for breath. Three officers were tried and acquitted on charges stemming from Ellis’ death.

The bill to prohibit hogtying – which refers to fastening together a person’s bound or restrained ankles to their bound or restrained wrists – passed the state Senate unanimously and is awaiting action in the House.