At a Dec. 1 press conference, police accountability advocates announced four new bills aimed at tackling police misconduct, reducing the negative effects of policing on people of color and providing better restitution for the families of people killed by cops. Proponents of the new bills included State Sen. Joe Nguyen and State reps. My Linh-Thai, Drew Hansen and newly elected Darya Farivar.
The effort is coordinated by the Washington Coalition for Police Accountability (WCPA), a network of organizations and individuals that helped pass 12 new police accountability laws during the 2021 legislative session.
The first proposal was dubbed the “Traffic Safety for All” bill and would direct law enforcement agencies to not stop people over expired tabs or equipment failure, such as a tail light malfunction, unless it presents a safety risk. The legislation would also establish a pool of funds that low-income drivers, motorcyclists and cyclists can access for vehicle maintenance and helmets to ensure compliance with the traffic laws.
State Sen. Rebecca Saldaña said the bill would mean police put more dangerous driving incidents first.
“This makes a lot of sense in terms of prioritizing safety, in terms of prioritizing resources and making sure that our professional law enforcement are focused on what really is causing harm and jeopardizing people's lives, which is reckless driving and other types of crimes,” Saldaña said. “Being poor and driving should not be criminalized.”
WCPA also announced two bills aimed at holding police officers accountable for misconduct. The first one authorizes the Washington Attorney General (AG) to initiate pattern-or-practice investigations into police departments over systemic abuses and misconduct. Rather than just focusing on individual cops, this would enable the state to sue departments that systematically violate the law. This would allow the AG to act in a similar role to the Department of Justice in its own civil rights inquiries, such as the investigation that led to the 2012 consent decree between the Seattle Police Department (SPD) and federal government.
The second bill would establish an independent prosecutor to investigate and prosecute police misconduct at the state level. If passed, the new prosecutor would work with the Office of Independent Investigations and handle police misconduct cases instead of leaving them up to county prosecutors.
WCPA member Debbie Novak said that this would be fairer than the current system because it could eliminate potential conflict of interest due to the close working relationships between local law enforcement officers and prosecutors. Novak, whose son David was killed by a Spokane cop in 2019, said that the current system for prosecuting police misconduct was not fit for the purpose.
“This is an obvious conflict of interest and frankly it is outrageous that this has been common practice,” Novak said.
The last bill proposed by WCPA would revoke qualified immunity for police officers on the state level. According to the coalition, juridical precedent set at the federal level gets passed down to state courts, allowing cops to be shielded from civil litigation. The bill would instruct courts to not consider the doctrine of qualified immunity if a plaintiff sues for state constitutional violations.
Tonya Isabell, a member of WCPA and a cousin of Charleena Lyles, who was killed by SPD in 2017, said that police accountability is a matter of life and death for her children and other Black community members.
“I'm here today to ask for support on the traffic stop bill, because I am a Black parent with Black children and I am in fear of their life every day that they go out in their cars and they drive and if they get pulled over, are they going to make it back home?” Isabell said. “Because if they reach in the glove department to get their insurance papers, or if they reach for their wallet, are [police] gonna say they have a weapon and they end up dead?”
Guy Oron is the staff reporter for Real Change. Find them on Twitter, @GuyOron.
Read more of the Dec. 7-13, 2022 issue.