By Arlene Kiyomi Dennistoun
Northwest Asian Weekly
Police accountability. It’s “the civil rights issue of our time,” said Toshiko Hasegawa during a phone interview. Hasegawa, a past president of the Japanese American Citizens League, is a member of the Joint Legislative Task Force on the Use of Deadly Force in Community Policing. She told panel members in July, “We’re not looking for a 90-yard touchdown here. Our job is to make two-yard gains, two-yard gains until we’re in a position where we can do something that’s meaningful. The community is looking for accountability when abuses occur. And that’s a difficult conversation to have, but we’re charged with having that conversation.”
A deep divide among the panel, tasked with examining police use of deadly force, threatens to fracture members oft-repeated but seemingly fragile goal of collaborating to find common ground. On one side of the divide are those who expected an honest discussion of changes to current law, implicit bias, the impact of community policing on communities of color, immigrants and refugees, and the huge elephant in the room — the fatal shootings of persons of color and racism. On the other side, stakeholders in the law enforcement community who want to maintain the status quo.
The task force was a compromise response by the legislature after House Bill 2907 died, which would have removed malice and good faith requirements for deadly force to be lawful. But after spending the better part of seven hours over the course of two days discussing everything but the law on police use of deadly force, Hasegawa, representing the Commission on Asian Pacific American Affairs, finally asked, “Is there a reason we are not addressing the Washington state law on deadly force?” Several other members chimed in, wanting answers about why the agenda seemed one-sided for law enforcement, why no one consulted members about discussion items, and why they couldn’t get requested documents.
Sen. Kirk Pearson (R-39th District), the co-chair of the committee, resisted discussions on implicit bias based on his personal experience. He said he had no biases and never treated anyone differently based on their appearance. He told frustrated members the issues raised were beyond the scope of the task force.
The divide got deeper, as members strenuously objected, and Hasegawa’s voice rose above the clamor, insisting, “It is not beyond the scope of this committee.”
Twelve of the 26 task force members went so far as to send co-chairs, Rep. Roger Goodman (D-45th District) and Pearson a letter asking for transparency, time for public comment, and consideration and identification of priority issues. Task force members also wanted prosecutors’ memos explaining why they declined to charge police officers in King County and other jurisdictions after widely publicized fatal shootings by police in the state.
Goodman guaranteed the task force would consider the law related to police use of deadly force.
Goodman said during a phone interview, “When stakeholders from all sides gather, there’s always going to be a lot venting.” But he said he’s confident members will come together and find common ground because they all have a common interest in finding ways to reduce violent confrontations between law enforcement and the public. Goodman pointed out that of 500,000 cases of police violence in the state, only three ended in fatalities. Asked whether they should discuss the three widely publicized deaths (Che Taylor, John T. Williams, and Antonio Zambrano-Montes) that were the catalyst of demands for police accountability, Goodman was noncommittal. “We haven’t figured out yet the issues that will form the policy recommendations to the legislature.” Goodman hopes to flesh out the issues at the next meeting in September. Goodman said he didn’t think it was helpful to compare Washington law with other states’ laws, although he’s curious because each case is different, and the way laws are applied and interpreted differ. “We have to have laws that fit our culture and community.”
Mark Roe, for one, believes the “good faith” provision in the current law fits the community and is critically necessary to protect police. Roe is the Snohomish County prosecutor, representing the Washington Association of Prosecuting Attorneys on the task force. Roe also wants to have a free and open discussion no matter how “ugly or dirty.” The working group wants to get at the big elephant in the room, and they should have that on the next agenda. “I’m ready for it,” he said.
Gerald Hankerson, president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People for Seattle-King County, Alaska, Oregon, and Washington, balked at all the time spent talking about training.
“I’m here to deal with deadly force, not how police have been training. For police shootings, when police do it, they get training. When we do it, we get prison.” Hankerson said if biases can’t be trained out of people, “we need to take away your guns if you kill somebody,” because you can’t “un-ring that bell.” His community is calling for indictments of officers who kill, so “we feel like justice is working.” Even if officers are not found guilty, at least Hankerson’s community will feel like the wheels of justice have spun.
“Please forgive me for saying this, but if we don’t address this in the right way, this is what triggers Dallas, this is what triggers Baton Rouge. This is what we’re afraid of — at least I am — wackos that take the law into their own hands.”
One organization is taking the law into their own hands, but not through violence. Washington for Good Policing filed Initiative 873 earlier this year to change the law on the use of deadly force. The initiative seeks to remove seven words, “without malice and a good faith belief,” from the law. Andre Taylor spoke about the initiative at the meeting. His brother, Che Taylor, was shot and killed by police. Good Policing claims Washington is the only state with the malice standard. Sponsors of the initiative need 250,000 signatures by the end of this year to get the initiative on next year’s ballot.
It’s hard to predict whether the task force will find common ground, given the apparent chasm between law enforcement supporters and members seeking police accountability. We reached out to Pearson for comment, but he didn’t respond in time for this article. “My heart is heavy today,” said Dr. Karen Johnson, president of the Black Alliance of Thurston County at the meeting. “It feels like we’re back in the 1960s.” Johnson thinks about the young black men and police who’ve been killed recently and wondered, “When will we stop the hate and learn to relate.”
Although not a task force topic, the lack of confidence in community police was coincidentally mirrored in the results of a 2016 Chinatown International District (CID) survey. 44.3 percent of survey respondents said they “rarely” see police engaging with the public. Only 2.4 percent said police-community relations were “very good,” and 70.5 percent of the community think police-community relations are “fair,” “poor,” or “very poor.”
The next open, public meeting of the task force is on Sept. 13, between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m., at the Capitol Campus, Olympia (hearing room to be determined). Additionally, Hasegawa is hosting community conversations to provide updates and get feedback on the task force. Discussions will be held at Keiro NW’s Garden Room (1601 Yesler Way, Seattle), on Aug. 25 and Oct. 6, between 5:30 and 7:30 p.m. The conversations are open to the public, please RSVP Hasegawa at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Arlene can be reached at email@example.com.