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State Democrats score first victory of session in bid to overhaul police accountability

The push for police reform continues. (AP Photo/Tony Dejak, File)

Lawmakers looking to overhaul Washington state’s police accountability framework scored a victory this week, after a bill that would form a panel of arbitrators to oversee appeals related to disciplining police officers passed by a wide 41-8 margin in the state Senate.

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SB 5055 — sponsored by Democratic state Sen. Joe Nguyen — was modeled off a similar bill passed in Minnesota shortly after the death of George Floyd. If enacted, it would create a panel of up to 18 arbitrators who would be tasked with hearing and ruling on cases brought by officers appealing punishment doled out by their local police departments.

The process as it stands now has often faced criticism for favoring officers. The goal with this bill would be to have the rotating pool of arbitrators operate more objectively, with members of the panel assigned to review disciplinary grievances in alphabetical order.

The bill would also serve the added purpose of barring public employers of law enforcement from entering into a collective bargaining agreement that blocks implementation of, alters, or suppresses a local ordinance or charter requiring civilian review of officer discipline. The goal with that is to prevent local police unions from entering into collective bargaining agreements that would seek to supersede or strip out the requirements of the state-level arbitration requirements.

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“This will reduce potential for abuse in the police arbitration process and increase transparency to the public,” Sen. Nguyen said Thursday. “This is a vital step to build trust and accountability in our communities.”

The bill will next be passed to the state House. If approved there, it would then cross Gov. Jay Inslee’s desk to be signed into law.

This comes as part of a larger push in the Legislature to overhaul police accountability statewide. A separate proposed bill — SB 5134 — seeks to limit the ability of the arbitration process to overturn disciplinary decisions made at the local level, while another — HB 1054 — would restrict police officers from using chokeholds. The latter of those two bills passed out of the state House’s public safety committee in January, while the former still has yet to be voted on in the state Senate’s labor committee.

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