How Policing in Washington is Changing After the 2021 Legislative Session

What is needed for police reform? Last summer, in the wake of George Floyd’s murder, tens of thousands of protesters rallied in cities throughout America to highlight the urgent need to address that question. Here in Washington, officers kill more 35 people each year on average, although this is a low estimate as it only tracks shootings and not other modes of police killing. Two years ago, voters passed Initiative 940, which set new standards for use of deadly force and established requirements for law enforcement to receive de-escalation, mental health, and first-aid training. Yet, officers have killed more than 100 people in Washington since the initiative went into effect.

The ACLU of Washington has worked closely with the Washington Coalition for Police Accountability (WCPA), a network led by families who have lost loved ones to police use of deadly force, to strategize solutions aimed at ending the violence. The coalition pushed Washington state lawmakers to consider and pass several bold and impactful ideas to address the issue.

In the 2021 legislative session, Washington passed 14 bills related to policing; two in particular are aimed at preventing police violence. One WCPA priority was HB 1054, the police tactics bill. This law, which becomes effective July 25, bans certain tactics and equipment that cause severe harm and are disproportionately used against people of color. It prohibits numerous dangerous maneuvers, weapons, and procedures such as chokeholds, like the one that killed George Floyd, and neck restraints, a broader category of holds that killed Eric Garner in New York and Manuel Ellis in Tacoma.

The new law also restricts the use of tear gas for crowd control. Last summer’s protests saw police using tear gas “indiscriminately”—a chemical that has been banned by the Geneva Convention for use during war. After ACLU-WA sued SPD on behalf of Black Lives Matter protestors, a federal judge issued an injunction, severely restricting SPD’s use of the chemical irritant. The new law requires the highest elected official in the jurisdiction—a mayor, county executive, or the governor—to authorize the use of tear gas by police for crowd control.

The new law also prohibits the acquisition and deployment of certain military equipment, prohibits police from hiding their identity badges, and the use of no-knock warrants, like the one that resulted in the killing of Breonna Taylor. Prohibiting police use of hyper-aggressive and dangerous tactics should reduce the most tragic outcomes.

But determining when and how law enforcement can use force in the first place is critical. HB 1310 serves to both prevent police violence and establish a standard to hold officers accountable when harm occurs. Current state law allows police to complete an arrest by any means necessary, in effect providing a blank check for using force.

The new law repeals the old standard and makes clear that all Washington law enforcement officers are expected to use de-escalation training. It replaces the current arrest law with a statewide standard that limits using force to certain circumstances, and only allows deadly force to be used as a last resort when necessary to prevent serious injury or death to the officer or others. Law enforcement officers would be required to use reasonable care when deciding whether to use force, taking into consideration specific circumstances such as someone experiencing a mental health crisis, disability, youth, pregnancy, limited English proficiency, or the presence of children.

This change to limit the scope of a police officer’s authority to use force against members of the public has already resulted in changing police behavior. The Sedro Woolley Police Department posted on social media that, when engaging with a person in crisis in their own yard, officers chose not to use force against them. The person wasn’t committing a crime. Instead of physically subduing him using force, as the officers stated they would have done in the past, they worked with mental health specialists to de-escalate the situation, calm him down, and he returned to his house.

In addition to these laws, others create a new, independent state agency to investigate officer-related killings, require all departments to report data on uses of force, and strengthen decertification rules so that officers with patterns of misconduct can be suspended or stripped of their license, as an attorney would.

While these new laws will likely reduce police violence in Washington, emphasize de-escalation over confrontation, and bring better transparency, there are still more reforms being reviewed. It has been challenging to hold officers accountable if they do violate peoples’ rights or engage in misconduct. One reason has been the doctrine of qualified immunity. One bill that did not pass in the 2021 session, the Peace Officer Accountability Act, would have allowed victims of police misconduct and their families to sue an officer or department for violating their rights, without qualified immunity, and be awarded attorney’s fees if successful.  

Washington, along with many other states, has recognized that the current standards are not working. These new laws will improve policing outcomes, and make it more likely that everyone, including police, has a better chance of going home at night.