Task force examines Washington's deadly force laws

Task force examines Washington's deadly force laws

SPOKANE, Wash. - While police shootings have dominated headlines in recent months, a task force has met quietly in Olympia, examining whether or not Washington law should change regarding the use of deadly force.

According to a Washington Post database, 18 people have been killed by police in Washington this year. With more than two months to go, that number has already surpassed the 16 killed by police in 2015. In every case so far and 212 of 213 police shootings tracked in recent years, prosecutors have ruled the shootings justified.

Critics blame a somewhat subjective clause in Washington law, which states, "A public officer or peace officer shall not be held criminally liable for using deadly force without malice and with a good faith belief that such act is justifiable." Washington is the only state that includes that language; several bills in the legislature last session aimed to remove that language, making it more likely prosecutors would charge police officers with a crime.

"Were they vindictive, did they have a grudge, were they evil in what they were doing... it's next to impossible to assess what's going on in somebody's mind," said Rick Eichstaedt with Spokane's Center for Justice. He's among those calling for change to state law regarding deadly force.

A bill that would change the language died in the legislature last spring. But, lawmakers did vote to convene the Use of Deadly Force in Community Policing Joint Legislative Task Force. Made up of lawmakers, police union leaders, attorneys and members of civil rights groups, the task force is examining Washington law to determine if the law is too restrictive.

Most law enforcement officials firmly believe it should not.

"Why do you need this law to change?" asked Spokane Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich. "Do you have a bunch of officers killing people for no reason? No, you don't. So, why?"

But, the task force is examining cases like the shooting of Antonio Zambrano-Montes. Cell phone video captured him throwing rocks, then running from Pasco Police. When he stopped to face them on the sidewalk, they shot and killed him. Prosecutors in that case ruled the shooting justified, specifically pointing to the good faith and malice clause in state law.

In addition to pending legislation, a group is also collecting signatures to put an initiative on the ballot that would remove that malice and good faith provision.

The task force has more work to do before handing over recommendations to Governor Inslee in December.