Editorials

We see problems with the deadly force initiative, but here’s why we recommend a ‘yes’ vote anyway.

A voter ballot envelope is pushed into the slot of a drop box in Kennewick. Voters will weigh in on Initiative 940 in November.
A voter ballot envelope is pushed into the slot of a drop box in Kennewick. Voters will weigh in on Initiative 940 in November. Tri-City Herald

We don’t like Initiative 940, but we recommend a “yes”vote with a message to state lawmakers: Finish the job you started last spring.

I-940 would alter the state law that protects law enforcement officers from being charged with a crime if they kill someone in the line of duty. It also requires them to receive more crisis training.

But specific language in the initiative needs clarification in order to get the blessing of most police officers, sheriff’s deputies and state troopers.

Typically we would suggest voters reject a ballot measure in need of so much fine-tuning.

But this initiative already has been worked over in the Legislature, and an amended bill – HB 3003 – was acceptable to most stakeholders and ready to go earlier this year. State lawmakers bungled its delivery, however, and it ultimately went nowhere.

That was unfortunate.

Regardless of whether voters support I-940, lawmakers need to approve the compromise measure – or something very much like it – as soon as possible next year.

We are concerned that if I-940 fails, lawmakers might take it as a signal that people don’t want any change to the law.

If that’s the message legislators think is being sent, rejecting the ballot measure would give them an excuse to do nothing.

That’s not how we want to see this issue played out. Some reform is needed.

Craig Bulkley, president of the Washington Council Of Police & Sheriffs (WACOPS), met with our editorial board to discuss I-940, and he said whether voters approve it or not, his organization is going to push for a compromise proposal.

He said the language in HB 3003 creates an understandable use of force standard superior to the language in I-940.

Leslie Cushman, of the pro De-Escalate Washington campaign, also met with us and emphasized that I-940 has backing from a wide variety of groups, including the League of Women Voters, the National Alliance on Mental Illness, the Washington Education Association and others.

Her group worked with WACOPS on the compromise bill, and their alliance is promising.

Bulkley and other law enforcement officials want voters to reject I-940 because they don’t want to take a chance lawmakers won’t act on it next year. If that happened, we would have to live with I-940 and its flaws.

We understand that concern, and think the language in I-940 should be tightened.

But we think it more likely legislators can be pressured to tweak a law voters approved than to pass one voters rejected.

An initiative cannot be amended in its first two years unless there is a two-thirds majority vote by the Legislature. Admittedly, that could be a heavy lift.

But knowing compromise language has already been worked out should make it easier for lawmakers to approve something both police and civil rights groups can embrace – and that’s what we really want.

This issue was spurred by controversial police-involved shootings statewide and across the country. Locally, many people were concerned after the 2015 death of Antonio Zambrano-Montes, who was shot and killed by Pasco police as he was throwing rocks on a busy street corner.

Currently, if officers kill someone on the job, they 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.”

That threshold is the highest in the nation. According to 2015 investigation by the Seattle Times, 213 people in Washington died from deadly force used by law enforcement between 2005 and 2014.

In only one of those cases was an officer charged. He was later acquitted.

In 2017, more people in Washington were killed during encounters with law enforcement than in 45 other states, according to Jim Pugel, retired Seattle Police Chief who is in favor of changes to the current law.

Mike Solan, a Seattle police officer and leader of Coalition for a Safer Washington, also met with us, and his group is against I-940. He worries about how changes in the law might affect an officer’s split-second decision-making ability.

Police risk their lives every day, and we don’t want reform to go so far that it puts law enforcement lives in more danger.

But current language sets the bar so high it puts police above the law. That’s not a healthy situation either.

We recommend a yes vote of I-940, and a legislative amendment next year.

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