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Manuel Ellis, independent investigations
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WA law enforcement, families of victims clash over independent investigations bill

People hold signs during a vigil for Manuel Ellis, a black man whose March death while in Tacoma Police custody was recently found to be a homicide, near the site of his death on June 3, 2020 in Tacoma, Washington. (Photo by David Ryder/Getty Images)

In the wake of George Floyd’s killing by Minneapolis police, and the similar in-custody death of Manny Ellis in Tacoma, Gov. Jay Inslee created a task force of experts and family members of those killed by police to focus on recommending changes to the way police use of deadly force investigations are handled.

Oversight group reacts in wake of Tacoma officer driving through crowd

Katrina Johnson, whose cousin Charleena Lyles was killed by Seattle police in 2017, was on the task force and said the number one priority was clear: “A completely independent entity investigating the police use of deadly force and it is out of the hands of law enforcement agencies.”

Those recommendations have now been turned into requested legislation from Governor Inslee in HB 1267, with Kent democratic Representative and Black Caucus member Debra Entenman as the lead sponsor.

“If this legislation is to pass as written, I believe we’ll have real accountability measures, we will stand up independent investigative units in different regions so that when there is an officer-involved shooting, there will be someone to immediately start the investigation and take it over from the local police department,” explained Entenman, pointing out that it would allow for truly independent investigations.

“I think what has been shown to have happened is that there are times when police departments seem to be more concerned about protecting the officer, instead of finding out what really happened in the incident, where the police are investigating the incident, where it seems to be that at the same time they are trying to investigate their fellow police officer. There’s a conflict of interest here. So in the independent investigations bill, we are trying to remove that conflict of interest,” Entenman added.

This bill was heard in the House Public Safety Committee this week with even more attention than expected, after a viral video over the weekend that showed the moment a nearly 30-year veteran of the Tacoma Police Department drove through a crowd that surrounded his cruiser.

The independent investigation into that Saturday incident, which sent two people to the hospital but did not kill anyone, is being handled by the neighboring Pierce County Force Investigation Team, something families and community say must change.

“When a police officer gets in a car and is concerned about his own safety, to the point where he might run over pedestrians — again, I did not see the video, and I’m not a police officer, and I wasn’t there — it seems to me we should have systems in place where a police officer could call for backup where there’s just more that goes on than a police officer fearing for his or her life and running people over,” Entenman said. “There needs to be more accountability on all sides.”

During the hearing, there were strong voices of support, including Johnson, who noted the Seattle officers who shot and killed her cousin in 2017 knew Lyles had mental health issues, but still failed to deescalate.

“But I am also here to tell the truth,” Johnson testified. “What happened in Tacoma with the murder of Manuel Ellis and the cover up by the Pierce County Sheriff’s Office is unacceptable, and now we have a team of investigators from Pierce County investigating the Tacoma officer who drove his patrol car through a crowd on Saturday night? We need to move this work to a state level office, and law enforcement should be removed from the work.”

“The community does not have trust in the laws to have police investigate crimes of their colleagues, and we shouldn’t — the profession is infested with white nationalists, and as a result we face discriminatory policing, we are harassed, bothered on the street, we get profiled in traffic stops, and followed in grocery stores by law enforcement,” Johnson added. “When a police officer uses deadly force, we want a full criminal investigation, and we want it to be impartial, unbiased, fair, and professional.”

Many others agreed, including Devitta Briscoe, whose brother Che Taylor was killed by Seattle police in 2016.

“There were no charges filed in his killing,” Briscoe explained. “Yet his hands were up, and he was unarmed, the inquest jurors found unanimously that he did comply with officers’ orders, and there is the possibility that evidence was mishandled and a gun planted in the vehicle at the impound yard.”

“We learned through Initiative 940 implementation process that investigations before 940 were not on par with other homicides, and we have learned since 940 that keeping investigations with other police is too risky with too many conflicts of interest. It is crucial that we move these investigations away from law enforcement entirely,” Briscoe said, adding that this new civilian office should also have authority to reopen investigations into the police killings of her brother Che, as well as John T. Williams and Bennie Branch, as they were investigated under the prior system.

But on the law enforcement side, despite support for transparency and improved investigations, there were concerns.

“One of the things that this bill does is it seeks to transition criminal investigations to non-law enforcement officers — the very nature of these investigations is to inform a criminal prosecutorial decision and we think that using civilians to do that undermines, if not jeopardizes, the prosecutability of such a case,” said James McMahon with the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs, who also had concerns about the governance.

Previously unidentified police officers involved in death of Manuel Ellis

“We think that this board should govern not simply advise, and to the extent that we possibly can insulate this office and its operations from political influence,” McMahon said, adding they also wanted language to make it clear the body must investigate and did not have the ability to choose whether an incident would be investigated.

Teresa Taylor with the Washington Council of Police and Sheriffs thought they needed to take the time to evaluate the system that came with I-940, which, though it passed nearly two years ago, only kicked in this past January.

“Let’s look at the current, very new program, understand what is working and where improvement is needed, and then consider whether further reform is prudent. We’ve testified before you before and supported the audit concept to look at departments and their compliance with the laws and rules. We believe that’s the next appropriate step,” Taylor said.

Others wanted lawmakers and community to try to understand officers have unique challenges they must endure all while, for the most part, doing tremendous work.

“We think the Legislature should recognize that law enforcement officers have a tremendously difficult job,” said James Fisher with the Washington State Fraternal Order of Police. “Each day they go to work knowing that they have to put their lives at risk. The vast majority of law enforcement are true public servants seeking to protect the community, and we think the Legislature should recognize these many acts of kindness and heroism, performed by these peace officers. Law enforcement must be part of the solution and the system must work to include their voice, as we move toward a system that we all can find incredible.”

“If we want to do one thing right, we want to do independent investigations, but we are concerned about the scope detailed in the bill,” he said, adding they were also disappointed it includes a prosecution aspect, referring to ongoing calls from community to not only have independent investigations but also independent prosecutions in deadly use of force cases.

Entenman, the lead sponsor of this bill, is already working on that and expects to introduce it this session.

One thing she wants everyone to understand is that this effort is about protecting everyone, not just people of color.

“I really want folks to understand this police investigative work has a disproportionate impact on African-American people, and Hispanic people, and Native people,” Entenman said. “But this issue is about public safety for everyone and having equitable public safety. I don’t want people to relegate this to an issue that only has to do with Black people, Hispanic people, and Indigenous people.”

“We have a public safety system that should be equitable for everyone. When I or a loved one encounter the police, it should be the same whether I am white, Black, Indigenous, or Asian. Or however I identify. What should happen is the training of the police officer and the system of public safety should be equitable for everyone,” she explained, stressing how important it was that all of us understand that.

“While this disproportionately impacts people of color, this is an issue for all of us to be concerned about,” she said.

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