A contentious bill that passed the state Senate could transform Washington’s police oversight agency from an anemic watchdog into a formidable instrument for police accountability.
While other reform efforts in Olympia focus on high-profile police tactics, such as prohibiting chokeholds and neck restraints, this bill takes aim at a more obscure but powerful aspect of police policy: decertification.
Under the bill, SB 5051, the Washington state Criminal Justice Training Commission (CJTC) would greatly expand its capability to investigate police misconduct and revoke or suspend a police officer’s license. It represents a fundamental shift toward state oversight of misconduct cases against local police officers.
The state agency’s ability to decertify — to take away a troubled officer’s gun and badge for good — has been hamstrung for years, a Seattle Times investigation last year found. The circumstances for decertification are so narrow, and the agency’s enforcement arm so understaffed, that the state hardly ever takes action. Washington has never decertified an officer for using excessive force.
Instead, officers with long histories of misconduct have been able to move from department to department.
Sponsored by Sen. Jamie Pedersen, D-Seattle, chair of the Senate Law and Justice Committee, SB 5051 is one of a slew of police-accountability measures pending in the Legislature, spurred by a year of national protests against police brutality and racial injustice.
Pedersen, before the vote, said the bill is meant “to restore public confidence that members of our law enforcement and correctional officer professions, who are given the power of a badge and a gun to enforce the law, are appropriately exercising those powers.”
After a debate that stretched late into Thursday night, the Democratic-controlled Senate passed the bill by a mostly party-line vote of 26 to 19, with four senators absent or excused. One Democrat, Sen. Tim Sheldon of Potlatch, opposed the measure. It now heads to the state House.
The bill would overhaul the state’s decertification law, which hasn’t been significantly changed since it was passed in 2001. It would roughly double the number of reasons for an officer to lose certification, adding to the list use of force that violates law or policy.
It would allow the CJTC to add investigators, expanding its capacity to pursue additional cases, including against corrections officers, and would empower the commission to suspend an officer for misconduct. Today its only recourse is to revoke an officer’s license or dismiss a misconduct allegation.
In another major shift, the bill would give the majority of seats on panels that hear misconduct cases to civilians and others unaffiliated with law enforcement. A similar change would shake up the board of the CJTC. The bill would also allow the public to file complaints against officers with the state, instead of just with local law enforcement.
Lastly, it would give the CJTC authority to initiate decertification proceedings against an officer, without waiting for a local sheriff or chief to mete out discipline. Under the current law, the state has to wait — often for years — until an officer is fired for misconduct and exhausts all appeals before initiating decertification, allowing problem officers to quietly slip away or remain on the job.
Opponents say the changes would give the state too much control over local police decisions, and that chiefs and sheriffs are in a better position to judge officers’ conduct.
“When you consolidate total power in one agency,” Sen. Jeff Holy, R-Cheney, a former veteran Spokane police officer, said earlier in the week, “they become everything from the policy setters all the way through the executioners.”
Families united to lobby
Annalesa Thomas’ son Leonard was shot and killed by a SWAT team sniper during a 2013 standoff in Fife, in front of his then-4-year-old son. A jury awarded her family more than $15 million after a federal civil rights trial, one of the largest verdicts in a police deadly force case in state history.
But the officers blamed for the killing are still on the job.
“We were very naive about what happened to a police officer if they acted egregiously, or outside of the law,” Thomas said. “Their actions get to continue because they’re unchecked.”
Thomas is a member of the Washington Coalition for Police Accountability, a group of families affected by police violence. After the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police last year, and the subsequent nationwide protests, the group has been advocating for reforms in Olympia. Multiple family members testified in support of SB 5051.