How police reform efforts in the Legislature faltered this year

Police accountability advocates saw nearly every major police reform bill introduced in the Legislature lapse this year.

The policies that failed would have created more accountability for instances of police use of force, reduced violent interactions between the public and police, and worked to change the culture of policing, advocates say.

But four years after the 2020 Black Lives Matter movement began and three years after the Washington Legislature passed sweeping police reform policies, lawmakers from both sides of the aisle said the political climate simply isn’t ripe for police reform, particularly due to the public’s perception that crime is on the rise.

“With big political movements, oftentimes, you’ll see a pendulum swing back in the other direction,” said Sen. Yasmin Trudeau, D-Tacoma, whose ban on hog-tying after the death of Manny Ellis was one of the few police reform measures to pass this session. 

But advocates say law enforcement groups are peddling misinformation about rising crime and its connection to police reforms — and safe policing, as well as a safe public, won’t happen without advocates’ proposed reforms.

“We can’t have better accountable measures for the dentist and the doctor than we do for the officer that carries [a gun] and can take your life,” said Nickeia Hunter, a Washington Coalition for Police Accountability board member whose brother was killed by law enforcement. 

‘There’s so much crime’

Lawmakers failed to pass three of the Washington Coalition for Police Accountability’s top priorities: a bill to reduce traffic stops, a bill to establish an independent prosecutor to handle police use of force cases, and a bill giving the state attorney general’s office more authority over investigating law enforcement agencies.

Other proposed reforms backed by police accountability advocates, such as an effort to prevent cops from lying during interrogations, stalled amid vocal opposition from law enforcement groups.

Meanwhile, a Republican-led initiative erasing restrictions on police vehicle pursuits passed, as did several policies meant to encourage recruitment of new police officers amid a staffing shortage felt across the state’s law enforcement departments.

“People are like, ‘There’s so much crime. We don’t know what to do about crime,’” Trudeau said. “So anything that takes away law enforcement’s ability to solve a crime — it just takes the wind out of the sails.”

In Washington, violent crime has risen in recent years, nearing the national average — but the rate of crime is still far below peak levels reached in the 1990s. Still, House Minority Leader Drew Stokesbary, R-Auburn, said the number one issue he hears about from constituents is crime.

“I think there is virtually every Republican at this point and a big chunk of Democrats who realize that the public is very strong about wanting to make sure that there is not this public safety crisis or a perception of a safety crisis,” Stokesbary said.

“There’s not going to be a lot of public support for bills that are perceived to be going in the wrong direction,” he added.

But Trudeau said a lot of the public’s belief that police reforms make them less safe has to do with how police officers are handling the reforms. Constituents have called her, complaining that cops say they can’t investigate crimes like robberies because of the police pursuits restrictions — even though the pursuits policy in her district didn’t change.

“If you have top law enforcement officers that are throwing temper tantrums about policy change, the public is going to react,” Trudeau said.

The Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs, one of the leading groups against the police accountability coalition’s agenda in the Legislature, declined to comment for this story.

The organization pointed the Standard to a press release, which said its members “have long supported constructive, balanced reforms focused on principles that build trust, recognize the sanctity of life, and bring justice to victims of crime. Law enforcement need the appropriate tools to fight and prevent crime.”

‘Unfinished business’

Rep. Roger Goodman, D-Kirkland, said the state has come far since its 2021 police policy overhaul — and “we need to take some time to let it play out and get used to it.”

“There is some unfinished business in police reform and yet it’s not the agenda item in the middle of our radar, because we have accomplished so much already,” said Goodman, who heads the Community Safety, Justice & Reentry Committee in the House.

Those 2021 reforms included a ban on chokeholds and neck restraints, establishing a statewide use of force database, new standards for use of physical force, and sweeping changes to how police deadly force incidents are investigated.

But Trudeau said that to truly resolve issues of police misconduct, lawmakers have to be dedicated to passing comprehensive, ongoing policy changes based on the facts, rather than what’s politically convenient.

She pointed to messaging around police pursuits as an example: Lawmakers who supported loosening the restrictions on police pursuits said it was about making it easier for police to “do their jobs” and fight crime.

But growing research shows that, overall, cops nationwide spend a small share of their time solving serious crimes, instead focusing on things like traffic violations and noise complaints. A 2020 New York Times analysis that included Seattle Police Department data found that across the country that year, cops spent about 4% of their time on violent crime.

Washington lawmakers funded a study this year to look at police pursuit data to help evaluate the state’s policy.

Advocates say they’ll be back for next year’s legislative session.

“You’ll never really have true safe policing until you have accountable measures put in place,” said Hunter of the Washington Coalition for Police Accountability.

by Grace Deng, Washington State Standard

Washington State Standard is part of States Newsroom, a nonprofit news network supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Washington State Standard maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Bill Lucia for questions: Follow Washington State Standard on Facebook and Twitter.

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