In Washington State’s history, no police officer has ever had their badge revoked due to excessive force. While police reform legislation nationwide has aimed at chokehold restrictions, the need for body cameras and similar measures, a bill passing the state Senate on February 24 takes a different approach.
If passed by the House and signed by the governor, this bill would give the Washington State Criminal Justice Training Commission (“CJTC”) expanded capability to investigate police misconduct. The CJTC could revoke or suspend an officer’s license and decertify them.
Currently, the circumstances under which officers may lose their badge and gun are exceedingly narrow. The bottom line is that an understaffed state agency and a narrow definition of what constitutes circumstances under which decertification may take place means it rarely occurs.
Rather than decertify, problem officers are fired and can then move on to other police departments. The pattern of misconduct is often repeated. The bill changes the state’s decertification law in place for two decades. It doubles the number of reasons under which officers could become decertified. Those additional reasons include the use of force in violation of the law or department policy.
SB 5051, “concerning state oversight and accountability of peace officers and corrections officers,” provides for improving the process of decertifying officers found engaging in serious misconduct. It would require law enforcement agencies to report this conduct to the CJTC. All conduct investigated by the CJTC requires access to a public database.
The CJTC could add investigators and pursue additional cases, such as claims against corrections officers. The bill strengthens background checks for police officers. This includes reviewing the history of any extremist views.
The bill changes the structure of the panels overhearing police misconduct cases. Civilians and non-law enforcement personnel would hold the majority of seats on these panels. Should SB 5051 become law, it will become the strongest decertification system in the land.
100 Officers Terminated Annually
Over the past few years, approximately 100 police officers in the state are fired annually. Of these, 40 percent committed such serious violations that they were flagged for decertification by their supervisors. However, only about 13 percent actually are decertified. Under the present system, it can take years until an officer exhausts all appeals after termination for misconduct and the state can begin the decertification process. Meanwhile, such officers can stay on the job or find a similar position elsewhere.
Police unions oppose the bill. They allege allowing suspension by the CJTC for misconduct will lead to “unintended consequences.” Police fear the bill gives too much power to those who cannot appropriately evaluate police actions.
The legislature addressed some police concerns by amending the bill so that decertified officers do not lose pension or health benefits. No other labor organizations appear to oppose the bill. Representatives from the Teamsters, the Washington Federation of State Employees, and a union representing nurses and healthcare workers voiced no opposition.
Police reform has become a significant issue among labor groups. Union opposition killed a similar bill in 2014.