Washington Senate approves police accountability bill

OLYMPIA, Wash. (AP) — A contentious bill that passed the Washington state Senate late Thursday could transform the state’s police oversight agency from an anemic watchdog into a formidable instrument for police accountability.

While other reform efforts in Olympia focus on high-profile police tactics, such as prohibiting chokeholds and neck restraints, this bill takes aim at a more obscure but powerful aspect of police policy: decertification.

Under the bill, SB5051, the Washington state Criminal Justice Training Commission (CJTC) would greatly expand its capability to investigate police misconduct and revoke or suspend a police officer’s license. It represents a fundamental shift toward state oversight of misconduct cases against local police officers.

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The state agency’s ability to decertify — to take away a troubled officer’s gun and badge for good — has been hamstrung for years, a Seattle Times investigation last year found. The circumstances for decertification are so narrow, and the agency’s enforcement arm so understaffed, that the state hardly ever takes action. Washington has never decertified an officer for using excessive force.

Instead, officers with long histories of misconduct have been able to move from department to department.

Sponsored by Sen. Jamie Pedersen, D-Seattle, chair of the Senate Law and Justice Committee, SB 5051 is one of a slew of police accountability measures pending in the Legislature, spurred by a year of national protests against police brutality and racial injustice.

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Pedersen, before the vote, said the bill is meant “to restore public confidence that members of our law enforcement and correctional officer professions, who are given the power of a badge and a gun to enforce the law, are appropriately exercising those powers.”

After a debate that stretched late into the night, the Democratic-controlled Senate passed the bill by a mostly party-line vote of 26 to 19, with four senators absent or excused. One Democrat, Sen. Tim Sheldon of Potlatch, opposed the measure. It now heads to the state House.

The bill would overhaul the state’s decertification law, which hasn’t been significantly changed since it was passed in 2001. It would roughly double the number of reasons for an officer to lose their certification, adding to the list use of force that violates law or policy.

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It would allow the CJTC to add investigators, expanding its capacity to pursue additional cases, including against corrections officers, and would empower the commission to suspend an officer for misconduct. Today its only recourse is to revoke an officer’s license or dismiss a misconduct allegation.

In another major shift, the bill would give the majority of seats on panels that hear misconduct cases to civilians and others unaffiliated with law enforcement. A similar change would shake up the board of the CJTC. The bill would also allow the public to file complaints against officers with the state, instead of just with local law enforcement.

Lastly, it would give the CJTC authority to initiate decertification proceedings against an officer, without waiting for a local sheriff or chief to mete out discipline. Under the current law, the state has to wait — often for years — until an officer is fired for misconduct and exhausts all appeals before initiating decertification, allowing problem officers to quietly slip away or remain on the job.

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