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Why police training reform will take a little longer in Washington


Police training in Washington has been a hot button issue for years, with ongoing calls for changes and several high-profile police shootings. It seemed that Washington had found a way forward this year, after compromises were made and opposing interests came together.

But a judge recently overturned what lawmakers and interest groups had crafted, saying the way they passed the law ran afoul of the legislative process. Despite the setback, Washington is still on the path to reform its police training.

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Calls for changes to training — to make sure police were better able to de-escalate situations and avoid deadly force — started years ago. In 2012, former King County Sheriff Sue Rahr took over the Criminal Justice Training Center, where all cops in Washington go through basic training, and quickly got to work.

“We really started focusing a lot of our attention on not just the mechanics of doing the job, not just the skills and tactics, but talking about what it means to be a police officer,” Rahr said. “What is a healthy mindset? What is a healthy perspective. We wanted to move beyond arrest and booking. We wanted officers to take a step back and think about the bigger system issues.”

It led to the guardian vs. warrior training philosophy.

“Which is a much more complete perspective than what is frequently focused on in training in that we call the warrior side of the job,” Rahr said. “The warrior side is still very important and we still train officers in all the warrior skills because they have to have those not only to survive, but to be able to protect people.”

Rahr says the less aggressive approach, the guardian philosophy, plays a critical role in helping teach officers de-escalation tactics, or how to stay calm and communicate in a less aggressive way to hopefully diffuse a situation and avoid use of force.

All cops are being taught that to some extent now when they go through basic training, and have been since 2013. But in the years since, there have been more controversial deadly police shootings, often involving people in communities of color.

“It’s having a very visible effect on police-community relationships and I am very concerned about that because I felt like — and maybe this was naive — but it seemed like we were making some very positive strides in Washington and I think we are continuing to do that,” Rahr said. “But if you listen to the rhetoric in social media, whether on the far right or the far left, it doesn’t matter. The rhetoric is getting bad.”

Police training and the law

Rahr knew more needed to change. As did several state lawmakers, who over the past two years have introduced bills that would require better de-escalation and mental health training for officers. Olympia also tried changing the state standard of proving an officer acted with malice in a deadly force case in order to hold them criminally liable.

But those bills never got anywhere. That led the group De-Escalate Washington to send an initiative to the Legislature — I-940 — this past session. It removed the malice standard and required more training.

“The top thing on their list, of course, was training for de-escalation in both patrol tactics and communications,” Rahr said. “Also on that list was training on implicit and explicit bias, the historical intersection between race and policing, and shoot / don’t-shoot scenario training. What that refers to is the use of shooting simulators. So officers go into the simulator. Just like pilots go through a simulator of plane crashes, police officers go through simulators of deadly encounters.”

But law enforcement was against the initiative as written and lobbied against it until in the final days of the session. They, along with De-escalate Washington and a handful of lawmakers, locked themselves in a room and came up with a compromise that came in the form of a separate bill that amended the initiative, requiring most of the same training but clarifying the language. They passed both the initiative and the amending bill, which led a judge last week to find the process unconstitutional, and kill the amending bill. The judge ordered I-940 to go to voters in November.

Confidence in the law

But Rahr says she’s confident the compromise bill will eventually become law, even if it has to be taken up again next session. There was money in the budget for all of the training in the measure, so she’s moving forward.

The bill requires the police academy to come up with the training required in the I-940 and the amending bill. Rahr says that’s going to take time, but they’re working on de-escalation.

“De-escalation is more than just talking people down,” Rahr said. “Before you can talking someone down, you have to have to used correct patrol tactics so that you can buy time and cover.”


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