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Initiative Could Change WA Statute on Deadly Force by Police

In Washington state, police officers killed 213 people between 2005 and 2014. (Tiffany Von Arnim/Flickr)
In Washington state, police officers killed 213 people between 2005 and 2014. (Tiffany Von Arnim/Flickr)
August 4, 2016

SEATTLE – Critics say it is nearly impossible to charge a police officer who has used deadly force in the State of Washington, and the group Washington for Good Policing wants to change that.

Its members are collecting signatures for Initiative 873, which would strike what they see as the most onerous line in a law protecting officers who use deadly force.

The initiative’s campaign manager, Lisa Hayes, says under the current statute, prosecutors must show that officers acted "with malice and without a good faith belief" in order to charge them.

"The problem with that is, malice is a state of mind,” she points out. “It's legally defined as ‘evil intent,’ and it is nearly impossible to prove what an officer was thinking or feeling – or not thinking or feeling – for a deadly-force crime."

Congressional and state representatives, Seattle Mayor Ed Murray, the Seattle Police Department and other groups back the initiative.

However, some police officers say the initiative would open up the possibility of prosecuting police in hindsight for split-second decisions they make in heated and dangerous situations.

According to the Seattle Times, police killed 213 people between 2005 and 2014. Since the law went into effect in 1986, only one officer has been charged for using deadly force, and was acquitted based on the malice clause.

Hayes says the law is the most restrictive in the country when it comes to charging officers, and the only state law on deadly force that contains this language. But she adds this is not an anti-police initiative.

"We fundamentally believe that this may actually be making officers safer, because by removing this very nebulous malice clause, it goes a long way to repair public trust and improve community relations," she states.

The initiative needs 250,000 signatures by the end of the year to bring it before the Legislature in next year's session. If lawmakers reject the measure, it would appear on the next general election ballot for voters to decide.

Eric Tegethoff, Public News Service - WA