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Families of people killed by police fighting for change in Washington law

(AP Photo/Richard Vogel)

There was passionate testimony from both sides for a packed hearing in Olympia on Tuesday on the voter initiative that would make it easier to prosecute officers in use of deadly force cases.

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Currently, it’s extremely difficult to prosecute officers for use of force in Washington state because it has to be proven they acted with malice and without “good faith.” All bills and initiatives in recent years to change the law have failed.

But supporters of I-940 have gathered enough signatures and the effort is gaining more traction than ever before.

The initiative would remove the requirement to prove malice and better define what “good faith” means. It would also require enhanced de-escalation, mental health, and first aid training for officers.

Additionally, it would require completely independent investigations in use of deadly force cases — meaning totally independent from whatever law enforcement agency was involved.

While I-940 does have some support from law enforcement, including new King County Sheriff Mitzi Johanknecht; Steve Strachan, who heads up the Washington Association of Sheriffs told lawmakers most in law enforcement are not on board.

“Our concerns do not focus only on the issue of deadly force. We believe there are other areas of real concern which would require amendment. But if our focus is on reducing violent interactions involving police we don’t believe that I-940 is the best way to accomplish that goal,” Strachan said.

But Strachan left the door open for compromise.

“We oppose Initiative 940, however, we’re not just saying no. We’re interested in actively working to come together with proponents of I-940 to find a better way. We’re honored to serve in this valued profession. We are interested in serving everyone in our community and we look forward to finding ways toward our common goals,” Strachan said.

Dozens showed up to testify in support of the initiative, many who lost family members in police shootings, including Andre Taylor, who led his own similar initiative effort in 2016 after his brother Che Taylor was shot and killed by Seattle Police.

“In our community, we don’t have time to wait because every day we are affected by these situations. So there is an urgency for change. We’re looking to you for that leadership, we’re looking to you to take us to that next place of accountability, and no, it’s not against law enforcement officers.”

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Katrina Johnson, whose cousin Charleena Lyles was shot and killed by Seattle Police last year, says the changes would have made a difference for her cousin.

The parents of Leonard Thomas agreed. Thomas, an unarmed black man, was shot and killed by police in Lakewood in 2013. The case led to a more than $15 million verdict against the city, police chief, and officers.

But Thomas’ dad admitted the initiative isn’t perfect.

“Please start with the initiative we put out there … and build off of it.”

Many who spoke in favor of this said it would go a long way in helping to ease tensions between cops and communities of color, including Seahawks wide receiver Doug Baldwin.

“I know that this conversation is not easy … it’s been hard to hear the reluctance from some others and the conversation is just. But the hardest work is often times the most important work.”

Kelly Ditrich, the wife of a Thurston County deputy who shot and killed Joel Nelson in 2016 after getting punched .argued heavily against the initiative.

“No police officer in this state ever responds to any call hoping to have to fight for their life. Every police officer hopes they can clear the call without any paperwork and move on to the next. The people they’re contacting choose to escalate the situation.”

The Legislature can approve the initiative as is, or change it. If that happens, both the amended version and the original go to voters in November.

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