Following the widespread demonstrations and growing number of Black Americans killed by the police, the Washington Legislature is moving forward on reforming the police statewide. A majority of police reform bills have been delivered to Gov. Jay Inslee’s desk to be signed into law while others are making their way through the Legislature.
Of the bills headed towards finalization, some may have a bigger impact than others.
S.B. 5066 will require officers to intervene when they witness another officer engaging or attempting to engage in the use of excessive force. This bill will also require officers who witness any wrongdoing committed by another officer to report the activity to their supervisor.
This bill aims to address the public outcry about officers who stand by while other officers use excessive force, as witnessed during the murder of George Floyd.
Washington state Sen. Patty Kuderer was a co-sponsor of S.B. 5066, which she thinks is important for changing the overall culture of law enforcement.
“What we have seen, traditionally, is that law enforcement doesn’t intervene,” Kuderer said.
H.B. 1054 will ban the use of chokeholds, neck restraints and establish new restrictions on the use of tear gas.
To deploy tear gas, officers will now need the authorization of the highest elected official of the jurisdiction. Before this restriction, officers were allowed to deploy tear gas for riot control purposes per the Chemical Weapons Convention.
The convention, which bans the use of chemical weapons such as tear gas in war also states, “Riot control agents may not be used as a method of warfare but may be used for certain law enforcement purposes including riot control.”
Tear gas has been an increasingly debated topic after it was commonly deployed by police during last year’s protests. The effects of extensive tear gas exposure are still being studied, with many females reporting affected menstrual cycles according to an article by Oregon Public Broadcasting.
S.B. 5051 aims to increase ways for “problem officers” to be removed from the profession by modernizing the process of decertification. Police decertification is the process of revoking the officer’s certificate or license.
The Bellingham Police Department already has a policy in place similar to what is outlined in S.B. 5066, according to Lieutenant Claudia Murphy, the public information officer at Bellingham Police Department. The BPD’s policy requires officers to “intercede to prevent the use of unreasonable force.”
Murphy said via email, “None of us expect another officer at BPD to use unreasonable/excessive force during a call. We expect each other to follow policy and will speak up. If we investigate an unreasonable/excessive use of force and find a witness officer was present and did nothing, they will face discipline as well. We as officers want and need this to be the case, none of us wants to work with someone who uses unreasonable/excessive force on members of our community.”
Police should feel like a guardian of the community as opposed to feeling like it’s an “us vs. them” situation, Kuderer said. When police feel like the community is the opposing force, violence has more potential to occur, she said.
Kuderer, who has worked with law enforcement at all levels during her time as a prosecutor, said she recognizes that trust has been broken between many communities and the police. She said the senate passed these bills with the goal of rebuilding that trust.
Sen. Doug Ericksen does not support any of the police reform legislation. He said it made our communities less safe and tougher for law enforcement officers to go home alive.
Ericksen said these types of bills will result in the police being less likely to come to your defense in a potentially violent situation.
“These bills are missing the point,” said Russ Hayes, who worked as a police officer from 1998-2006 in multiple cities including Seattle. He said that if communities want better police officers, they need improved, continuous training as well as increased salary.
An article published by NPR titled “What Happens When Suburban Police Departments Don’t Have Enough Money?” suggests police departments that have a “lack of resources leads to a lack of accountability for bad actions.”
“You gotta get the pay up and set the standards higher to become a police officer,” Hayes said. In his experience, police departments that require officers have four-year degrees have better officers, he said.
Executive Director Melissa Gragg of Serenity Outreach Services works closely with the homeless in Bellingham and commonly deals with BPD officers. Gragg is not hopeful that these new laws, like the one requiring officers to intervene, will be upheld but said they are a step in the right direction.
“It shows that change is in the air, hopefully,” Gragg said, “and that we are actually going to start holding these people accountable.”