Police, Use of Deadly Force Task Force Releases Recommendations

Washington State Flag against a blue sky

by Andy Jones
December 10, 2016

A state legislative task force, created to review ways of reducing the use of deadly force by law enforcement, released its recommendations to the governor and legislature on December 1.
 
The recommendations reflect many of the reforms pushed by Disability Rights Washington, the task force’s lone disability rights representative on the 26-member task force, known as the Joint Legislative Task Force on the Use of Deadly Force in Community Policing
 
The task force’s top priority is to overhaul Washington State’s uniquely expansive protection for police officers who use deadly force.
 
State law currently shields police officers from criminal liability in such circumstances, provided they act without “malice” and demonstrate a “good faith belief” that the use of deadly force was justified. The proposed recommendations urge that the legislature replace this language with a standard allowing law enforcement to be prosecuted where they fail to act as a reasonable police officer would have under the circumstances.
 
This proposal mirrors that of Initiative 873, which Disability Rights Washington has endorsed.

Disability Rights Washington strongly supports the changes to RCW 9A.16.040 recommended by this Task Force, but also believes that the statutory changes should go farther. The law must better reflect the sanctity of human life,” Disability Rights Washington wrote in a statement. “Among other things, it should include requirements of de-escalation whenever possible and the terms ‘imminent’ and ‘reasonably believes’ throughout. 

Although not formally recommended by this Task Force, Disability Rights Washington also believes there should be an independent state-wide special prosecutor with the authority to investigate and file charges in cases involving alleged misuse of deadly force by law enforcement.”
 
In addition, the task force adopted a range of recommendations, focused on improving community relations between law enforcement and marginalized communities.
 
Of particular importance to DRW, the task force recommended that law enforcement receive enhanced training at the Criminal Justice Training Commission on de-escalation techniques, addressing explicit and implicit biases, and interacting with people with disabilities, among other pressing concerns.
 
If the legislature adopts the recommendations, all law enforcement agencies would be subject to extensive data reporting requirements on incidents involving deadly force, including for demographic characteristics, such as disability.
 
An additional recommendation, proposed by DRW, calls for making improvements and increasing funding to Washington’s community behavioral health system.
 
As DRW sees it, the task force represents a potentially significant steps toward bringing disability rights concerns into the mix when addressing relations between police and marginalized communities.
 
“Continuing a respectful public conversation about the policing of people with behavioral health problems is absolutely imperative, but the conversation must also recognize the many other disabilities that are relevant to interaction with law enforcement,” DRW wrote in the statement. “People who are deaf or hard of hearing may have serious communication barriers with law enforcement which can lead to potentially dangerous misunderstandings.
 
“People with diabetes may face a related medical emergency causing disorientation or aggression that can be mistaken for intoxication or belligerence during police encounters. People with intellectual disability or autism may have difficulty understanding and responding appropriately to law enforcement commands. This all can cause confusion, frustration and potentially serious bodily harm as a result.” 
 
The full report can be read here [PDF].
 
A Seattle Times editorial in favor of the proposed changes to state’s criminal liability standard for police officers, published November 27, can be read here.

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