The Washington state law protecting police officers when they fatally shoot someone could not be set any higher on the dial, and that needs to change.
But we would caution against an over-correction.
Adjusting the criteria by a few clicks would be more appropriate than a hard turn in the other direction.
And it will be up to the 2017 state Legislature to make sure changes to the existing law are reasonable, as well as acceptable to those who will be most affected by the new rules — namely, law enforcement.
Last week, the Use of Deadly Force in Community Policing task force approved eliminating language that many believe make it impossible to prosecute a police officer who kills somebody in the line of duty.
Currently, police officers cannot be convicted of a crime if they acted with a “good faith” belief that the action was justified, and if they acted without “malice.”
Advocates for change say those conditions are too difficult to prove, and create a barrier prosecutors can’t get through.
In our own community, this high threshold was a factor in the controversial shooting death of Antonio Zambrano-Montes in 2015.
The confrontation ended with police firing 17 shots at Zambrano-Montes, who was high on methamphetamine at the time and throwing rocks at a busy Pasco intersection.
The Franklin County prosecutor and the state attorney general agreed they could not charge the three Pasco police officers involved because there was no way to prove the officers acted with “malice.”
Later that year, The Seattle Times conducted an investigation that found Washington state has the highest standard in the nation when it comes to holding police officers accountable for their use of deadly force.
The Times evaluated 213 fatal shootings by police over a 10-year period, and found that only one officer in all that time ever had been charged — and he was later acquitted.
To those who want reform, the language protecting law enforcement from prosecution must be loosened so that unjustifiable deaths by police have a chance at being prosecuted successfully.
But we also know that efforts for change can go too far, and we must guard against that.
While the legislative task force decided to recommend dropping the words “malice” and “in good faith,” the vote was very close.
The group is made up of lawmakers and representatives from police and community groups and legal organizations. Of the 26 members, only 14 reportedly agreed to the change.
Those representing law enforcement generally were opposed, and we can understand why.
Average citizens cannot begin to understand the stress and dangers police deal with on a daily basis.
Officers can’t afford to hesitate, and those who are doing their best should not be put in a position of having to second-guess themselves when a suspect is threatening their life or the life of someone else.
The recent death of a Tacoma police officer responding to a domestic dispute should drive that home.
If the Legislature does its duty, the recommendations by the task force will be vetted and a compromise will be found. That is the best way to amend existing law.
However, if the Legislature fails, there already is a signature drive under way that aims to change the law with a ballot measure next year.
Initiative 873 has the support of some elected officials and special interest groups, but we hope our lawmakers don’t see it as a fall-back plan.
We need legislators to bring both sides together, and that can be done by fine-tuning the proposal crafted by their own task force. We believe removing the “malice” but retaining the “good faith” language would provide an appropriate path to justice and provide law enforcement the protection they need.