A Ballot Initiative in Washington Could Help Reduce Police Shootings

UPDATE (11/7/2018): I-940 passes, making it more possible to hold police officers criminally liable for improper use of force.

Last year, more people died in encounters with police in Washington state than in 45 other states in the country. In 11 days, Washington voters will have the chance to change that.

Thanks to the signatures of nearly 360,000 Washingtonians, Initiative 940, a policing reform measure that will save lives and repair strained relationships between communities and law enforcement, is on the ballot this year. We're honored to partner with the families and communities who created the De-Escalate Washington coalition to advance Initiative 940.

According to The Washington Post, one-third of those killed by police in Washington state last year showed signs of a mental health crisis. A “yes” vote on I-940 would require enhanced mental health training for all officers across the state so that police can better handle stressful situations and protect people with mental health challenges. It would also require enhanced violence de-escalation and first-aid training and independent investigations of any police use of force that results in death or substantial bodily injury.

Washington is a national outlier because state law requires prosecutors to prove “malice,” or evil intent, before being able to hold egregiously reckless officers criminally liable for improper use of force. Many other states use the “objectively reasonable” standard, which asks what a reasonable officer presented with the same facts and circumstances would have done, without regard to the individual officer’s underlying intent or motivation. “Malice” requires determining the officer’s subjective frame of mind, which makes it extremely hard for police in Washington to be charged for unjustified homicides. As Seattle-based attorney Jeff Robinson, who is also ACLU deputy legal director, explained to The Seattle Times, the malice standard is “virtually a license to kill.”

This use of force standard is out of date. It’s also the worst in the country. More than 300 people were killed by police in Washington since 2005. In that time, only one officer was charged for unjustifiably taking a life while on duty, and he was ultimately acquitted. It’s wishful thinking to assume that none of the police officers involved in these killings acted recklessly or unnecessarily — we know from video footage and other evidence that this is not the case.

A “yes” vote on I-940 would replace malice with a standard that assesses what a “reasonable” officer acting in good faith would have done in the same circumstances. It is based on standards used in other states. I-940 would also improve training, increase accountability, rebuild community trust in law enforcement, and save lives. Many in law enforcement support this measure because more training is critical to prevent tense situations from becoming tragedies. They understand that accountability and training matter, particularly in a profession that involves the potential use of deadly force. 

To promote I-940, the ACLU of Washington has joined De-Escalate Washington, a group led by family members of those who’ve lost their lives in encounters with law enforcement and representatives of communities that are overrepresented in officer-involved killings and excessive uses of force. The coalition also brings together families, law enforcement leaders, mental health and disability rights advocates, Native tribes, LGBTQ groups, racial justice organizations, and many other concerned community and civil rights organizations and leaders. We believe that we can all unite, regardless of our race, backgrounds, or where we live to save lives and make Washington safer.

Ballots have just arrived in voters’ mailboxes. We’re urging all eligible voters to vote yes on I-940 to prevent avoidable tragedy, to save lives, and to rebuild relationships between the community and law enforcement for a safer Washington.

For more on Initiative 940, visit www.deescalatewa.org.

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Paid for by American Civil Liberties Union, Inc., 125 Broad Street, New York, NY 10004, and authorized by De-Escalate Washington I-940.

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Dr. Timothy Leary

"You know Batman, I thinks it's cool when the police shoot evil doers.": Robin in Batman Comics No. 49.

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