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New Washington bill places mental health officials with police

Seattle police. (KIRO 7)

Adjusting laws to solve controversial police issues has been difficult in Olympia, but two lawmakers have one option they believe will gain support.

“We’ve had this very unfortunate circumstance in Seattle recently with Charleena Lyles and we can’t wait,” State Representative Roger Goodman told KIRO Radio’s Dave Ross. “So Senator (David) Frockt and I have introduced companion pieces of legislation to put in place a pilot program to have trained mental health professionals as co-responders with law enforcement deployed to the scene.”

“So a mental health worker, trained in some law enforcement techniques, shows up at the scene to help talk down the person and deescalate and reduce violent confrontations,” he said. “And we hope prevent deaths.”

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Lyles was fatally shot by two Seattle police officers who were aware that she had mental health issues. The incident has once again provoked public outcry over the use-of-force police can wield, sometimes fatally. But police are often protected by Washington’s law which states officers cannot be prosecuted in deadly shootings unless it can be proven they acted with malice.

“We shouldn’t second guess what law enforcement have to do on the scene,” Goodman said. “We need to respect the very difficult circumstances they put themselves in. There is not a law enforcement officer that wakes up and says, ‘Who am I going to shoot today,’ or ‘What minority group am I going to shoot today.’”

“This (bill) is part of a process we’ve been engaged in the past year to build some understanding … The statute is not well-balanced because of this malice requirement, so there needs to be an amendment,” he said

That statute is not changing anytime soon as lawmakers fail to find common ground on the malice issue, Goodman notes. So Goodman’s bill takes another route — placing mental health officials at the scene. He has met with two police unions who are initially supportive of the idea, as long as it is not a requirement. Goodman said that the idea has been embraced elsewhere, such as San Diego which has had a similar program for 2o years. There are others in Texas and Minnesota.

“The Tacoma Police Department has been doing this for a couple years, not a broad spread program but a number of police officers volunteer for this and apparently it’s very successful,” Goodman said.

Goodman also notes that despite little movement on the malice issue in Olympia, there is plenty of movement among the public. He said there is an initiative effort — I-940 — gathering signatures. That initiative proposes to add a “good faith” standard to state law. So officers acting in good faith cannot be prosecuted when they fatally use force.

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