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Lawmakers want to lower bar to prosecute police in use-of-force cases

OLYMPIA, Wash. — A new push in Olympia is underway to change the state’s use-of-force statute.

Some lawmakers want to change the way police officers are trained, investigated and prosecuted in Washington.

Supporters of the measure say a police officer has not been convicted of using deadly force since 1986 and they blame the state’s current statute.

Kimberly Miles lost her son to an officer-involved shooting in 2012. On Tuesday, she showed up to a state House Public Safety Committee hearing in support of the proposed changes.

Miles says her son Keith was mentally unstable when a Thurston County sheriff’s deputy tried to arrest him. She says the deputy shot her son after her son confronted the deputy with a pole.

“I was pleading with him to help my son,” Miles said.

Miles said deadly force was not necessary in her son’s case. She and others who lost loved ones to a police shootings are behind HB 1529 and other similar bills working its way through the Legislature.

“Our law provides immunity for unjustifiably, recklessly, negligently killing someone knowing it’s wrong,” said one woman.

Rep. Roger Goodman, D-Kirkland, is hoping to get rid of that immunity by deleting the word 'malice' from the state statute.

“The (legal) bar of having to prove malice has prevented prosecution in this state,” Goodman said.

Opponents say if the bill passes, public safety is at risk.

“Police chiefs who would look to protect their police officers and not put them in bad situations would probably, you know, (go after) misdemeanor crimes, shoplift, maybe those are not a priority anymore,” said Rep. Morgan Irwin, R-Enumclaw.

Irwin is a first-time state lawmaker and also a Seattle police officer. He is not speaking on behalf of SPD but calls Goodman’s bill a power grab.

“They are talking about a complete overhaul of training hundreds and hundreds of police officers,” Irwin said.

Irwin said the bill essentially would allow the state to run police departments rather than leaving it to local departments.

Irwin also said that police officers need protection because they deal with dangerous and volatile situations daily.

He’s also questioning what the changes would cost the state. On Tuesday, Goodman said the estimate was around $5 million to $10 million. Irwin believes the overhaul could cost tens of millions more.

Irwin said it’s an expensive initiative that is not necessary.

A recent Department of Justice assessment said Seattle police, for example, had four officer-involved shootings in 2016 and that excessive use-of-force is infrequent.

“Seattle had 460,000 calls for service and there were 4 officers-involved shootings,” Irwin said.

But Goodman said perception of police is different among some of his constituents.

“There is a lot of perception that they are targeted and bias against them,” Goodman said.

Goodman recognizes that officer-involved shootings are not common in Washington but he says there are a small number of shootings that are highly questionable.

In those cases, Goodman believes the law should allow for police officers to be held accountable.