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Here’s what Initiative 940 means for police officers’ use of deadly force

Despite an attempt by the state legislature to amend it, Initiative 940 will appear on the ballot in its original form this November, giving voters the opportunity to decide if they want to implement a new test to determine whether law enforcement officers’ use of deadly force is justifiable.

What it means: Current law protects officers from being criminally liable for using deadly force if they act “without malice and with a good faith belief that deadly force is justifiable.” A “yes” vote on the Police Training and Criminal Liability in Cases of Deadly Force Measure would institute a new two-part test for good faith, according to language from the Washington Secretary of State’s office and Ballotpedia.

  • The objective good-faith test: met if “a reasonable officer, in light of all the facts and circumstances known to the officer at the time, would have believed that the use of deadly force was necessary to prevent death or serious physical harm to the officer or another individual.”
  • The subjective good-faith test: would have been excluded from the measure had the legislature gotten its way – instead, the state Supreme Court struck down their change. Test is met if the specific officer in question “intended to use deadly force for a lawful purpose and sincerely and in good faith believed that the use of deadly force was warranted in the circumstance.”
  • The “malice” requirement would be removed.
  • When a police officer kills someone or causes “substantial” bodily harm or “great” bodily harm through use of deadly force, an independent investigation would determine whether the objective good faith test had been met.
  • Police would also be required to receive mental health, first aid and de-escalation training.

Who’s backing the initiative: De-Escalate Washington, a coalition of civil rights groups, has spent most of its $3.2 million supporting the initiative, according to the Public Disclosure Commission. Its top donors include the Puyallup Tribe, billionaire entrepreneur Nick Hanauer, the American Civil Liberties Union and the Service Employees International Union.

Several law enforcement groups and individuals, including King County Sheriff Mitzi Johanknecht and the Black Law Enforcement Association of Washington, are supporting the initiative, the coalition said.

The De-Escalate Washington campaign says the initiative will help save lives by giving “officers the skills to avoid the use of deadly force where possible.” Proponents say it’s too difficult in Washington to prosecute police officers who recklessly kill unarmed people, and this initiative will make it easier to bring them to justice.

The Seattle Times Editorial Board, News Tribune Editorial Board, Tri-City Herald Editorial Board and Olympian Editorial Board support the initiative.

Who’s against it: Coalition for a Safer Washington, a group that supports local police officers, has spent more than $111,000 fighting the initiative. The coalition has received almost $170,000 in contributions, with $90,000 of that coming from the Seattle Police Officers Guild.

The group says state law already requires de-escalation and mental health training for officers (crisis intervention training is required, but de-escalation training is not, and mental health training is not mandated, according to the Attorney General’s office) and argues that the initiative makes police “put greater emphasis on providing medical care to individuals instead of actually doing their job of protecting the community from crime.” Instead of making communities safer, the coalition argues, it does the opposite.

“The flawed initiative will make it easier to prosecute law enforcement officers in use of force cases, even when justified,” King County Republican Chairman Lori Sotelo said in a statement. “The anti-policing initiative would make it more challenging for our law enforcement officers to protect the people they so bravely serve.”

Cops Against I-940 has raised $48,000 from various police guilds and spent $17,000.

The Columbian Editorial Board and The Spokesman-Review Editorial Board both say to vote “no.”

What an expert says: Steve James, an assistant research professor at Washington State University with a doctorate in criminology, thinks increasing law enforcement training and reducing use of deadly force is always good, but he’s concerned about how the initiative would function.

His chief worry is with the subjective good-faith test.

“I’m a scientist, and when you really throw subjective terms like good-faith at me, i just cringe. How do we measure it? How do we really measure what good faith means?” he said.

James thinks it’s reasonable for law enforcement advocates to be concerned that the weight of the initiative and desire to avoid using deadly force could endanger officers during crises, when they have to make split-second decisions.

“There are times when an officer has the ability to try other tactics (besides deadly force) and to be able to asses the situation … but there are times when there is no time to think about it,” he said. “It’s so difficult, that to put another burden, this good-faith burden, is potentially harmful.”

James, whose lab simulates and studies use-of-force situations, said he’d rather see legislation that expands the use of body cameras or improves how investigations are conducted.

He’s in favor of officers learning first-aid and de-escalation training, but wished the initiative had a clear mechanism for funding. Local and state governments could have to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars each year to pay for overtime and other costs involved with training.