Lawmakers blew it when it comes to deadly force initiative

The state Legislative Building in Olympia.
The state Legislative Building in Olympia. The Olympian

A measure that would change Washington state’s deadly force law will be on the November ballot, but instead of voting on a polished proposal, citizens are being given a really good rough draft.

And that’s a shame because lawmakers have the best version of the legislation ready to go. They just bungled the delivery.

Initiative 940 is a project of De-Escalate Washington, a group whose aim is to make it easier to charge police officers with a crime if they kill someone in the line of duty.

The effort is partly in response to the February 2015 death of Antonio Zambrano-Montes, who was shot and killed by Pasco police as he was throwing rocks at passing vehicles.

An inquest jury found the officers reasonably believed Zambrano-Montes posed a threat, and state and federal officials declined to file charges against the officers.

Nevertheless, civil rights groups continued their push to alter the law protecting police in negligent shootings, saying the current language makes it impossible to convict officers of a crime.

Supporters collected 360,000 signatures for I-940 and submitted it to the Legislature earlier this year. It eliminates a requirement that prosecutors prove officers acted with malice in shooting deaths, and it improves training in police de-escalation tactics.

Early on, law enforcement officers wanted the law to stay as is, but later they were willing to compromise.

When I-940 backers submitted the initiative to the Legislature, police officials still had reservations about it. So lawmakers worked with both sides to craft a better version everyone could embrace – which is admirable.

But here is where it gets confusing.

Lawmakers legally had three ways to proceed: They could adopt I-940 as is; they could take no action and send it to the ballot; or they could send I-940 to voters along with their own proposal, providing a choice between the two.

However, the Legislature didn’t choose any of these options.

Instead, it approved the initiative and then also approved a separate bill that amended the original – ESHB 3003.

This unusual path, while perhaps noble in its intent, is not allowed.

Tim Eyman, the state’s primary supporter of the initiative process, balked at the illegal move and sued.

On Tuesday, the state Supreme Court ruled that the original initiative must go to voters as intended, but that the compromise bill – even though it is preferred by law enforcement, I-940 backers and lawmakers – cannot.

The justices agreed with Eyman that the Legislature acted improperly.

In the court’s lead opinion on the case, Justice Sheryl Gordon McCloud wrote, “If the Legislature could amend initiatives immediately upon enactment, this carefully drawn balance of legislative power between the Legislature and the people would be destroyed.”

Imagine if lawmakers started tweaking every citizen-led initiative. They could undermine the people’s will with every ballot measure.

As it stands now, police agencies are recommending citizens vote against I-940 so the Legislature can go back next session and approve the preferred, compromise bill.

Backers of I-940, however, say voters should support the initiative anyway, and new language from the compromise bill can be worked in later.

It is unfortunate that lawmakers botched what should have been a slam-dunk new law that all those involved supported. As it is, the issue is still divisive, although both sides are cordial about it.

In the end, the Supreme Court got the ruling right, and lawmakers learned a tough lesson – they can’t interfere with the citizen-led initiative process, under any circumstances.