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Washington state Senate committee to tackle police reforms

A barrier stands outside of the Seattle Police Department's West Precinct on June 10, 2020 in Seattle, Washington. (Photo by David Ryder/Getty Images)

Better training, bans on chokeholds, transparency, and a real accountability system have been among the rallying cries of protesters locally and across the nation asking for police reforms following the killing of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police in May.

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Police reform will be a top issue for the Legislature when it returns for the 2021 session in January.

Democratic Senator Jamie Pedersen is finalizing a bill to address many of the reforms, including the creation of a stronger decertification process for officers.

“As a way to make sure that officers who have misused their authority in various ways can be removed from service,” Pedersen explained.

It’s a task that is unusually challenging due to various rules and loopholes in Washington state that often let bad cops, though an extremely small group, fall through the cracks and hang on to their badge and gun.

Pedersen’s decertification proposal would put teeth into the accountability side of things with the new decertification process – which is essentially like stripping their license to be a cop in Washington.

“That’s when there’s been a significant violation of that trust,” Pedersen said. “So somebody who has used excessive force, or who has lied under oath, or otherwise abused the trust that we’ve given them as law enforcement.”

Right now, there are significant problems with the process.

“With unfortunate frequency it is the case that police officers who have abused their trust then run a course of appeals that can take years, during which they’re still permitted to work,” Pedersen said. “And if they sort of see the writing on the wall, that they’re going to lose at the end of that process and lose their jobs, they can resign in lieu of discipline, and that actually, under the current statute, prevents the Criminal Justice Training Commission from taking any action with respect to their certification.”

“This bill is really designed to implement best practices that we see from states around the country in terms of their willingness to deprive folks who have abused trust in that way from the ability to work in law enforcement,” he added.

Among other things, this bill would expand the actions by officers that can trigger the decertification process, create a graduated system for discipline that does not only end with decertification, and give civilians a much larger role in hearings where decertification decisions are made.

“[It] will actually change the composition of the commission and of the individual hearing panels so that rather than being a large majority of police officers and law enforcement professionals, it’ll be made up of the majority of citizens,” Pedersen explained.

There will also be a proposal to require officers who witness misconduct by other officers to report the behavior, which is being championed by House Public Safety Chair Roger Goodman, co-sponsor of Pedersen’s 42-page omnibus bill.

Several other proposed police reforms are also expected in the upcoming session, including bills that address qualified immunity and the arbitration process. How those fare will depend on a variety of things, including how the election shakes out as far as the Legislature goes.

“There’s a pretty wide range of possibilities, even in the senate, for what the majority could look like,” Pedersen said.

“We could have as few as 27 seats or as many as 32 or 33 seats. The House has all 98 members up for election, some of them are running uncontested, but not very many, so there is at least the theoretical possibility of a very significant shift there,” he added.

In previous years, many proposed police reforms have run into walls with solid opposition from police unions, but Pedersen says that could be different this time around.

“We think that over the summer, there was a real awakening among a lot of the labor unions and their membership about their role in preventing police accountability, particularly Service Employees International Union, and United Food and Commercial Workers, but also the State Labor Council, that has been leading voices in trying to do work to increase accountability,” Pedersen said.

“It’s somewhere between possible and likely that labor will, at the very minimum, not try to block reforms, and may actually participate in helping to develop the political support for significant reforms in this area,” he added.

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The proposals also are not being created in a vacuum as Pedersen and others are engaging with various stakeholders, including law enforcement organizations, to get their take on the proposals before a final bill is dropped.

Some of that discussion will take place Wednesday in a work session in the Senate Law and Justice Committee that Pedersen chairs.

Follow Hanna Scott on Twitter or email her here

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