Bill to Create Civilian Office to Investigate Lethal Force, Serious Injuries by Police Advances in Legislature


Amid intense public outcry for more accountability after incidents of police use of force, a handful of bills to address how law enforcement does its job are making their way through the state Legislature. But one bill in the Senate is seeking to reshape what happens after a person dies as a result of police interaction.

Just like now, the bill proposes that when a person dies at the hands of police, an independent investigation would be launched. But instead of having law enforcement agencies investigate other law enforcement agencies, the legislation envisions a team of civilians doing the work.

"We have seen that police violence and a lack of accountability for that violence has eroded the community trust in law enforcement," said Rep. Debra Entenman, D-Kent, HB 1267′s prime sponsor.

There has only been one officer in Washington charged with murder since Initiative 940 made it easier to prosecute officers for deadly force.

A recent report found that just 5 out of 18 investigations into police use of deadly force met all the requirements of an independent investigation called for by Initiative 940, the sweeping 2018 police reform law that calls for independent and transparent investigations into police uses of deadly force.

Having an independent agency to investigate police killings, Entenman said, is crucial to "build trust where trust has been lost."

Her bill would create the Office of Independent Investigations (OII), housed within the governor's office, which would be responsible for investigating cases of deadly force and serious injury by officers. The bill passed out of the Senate committee on Law & Justice on Thursday and is headed to the Senate Ways & Means Committee.

Under the new office, regional teams of nonofficers would respond to uses of deadly force within an hour "to secure the scene and process evidence," said Entenman. She said there would be a slow transition during which former law enforcement members will be allowed, but the ultimate goal is for the teams to be composed entirely of civilians.

Members of the teams would include people with experience in areas such as criminal investigations, de-escalation, behavioral health, trauma-informed interviewing and knowledge of Washington law.

Staff at the agency would be trained in the history of racism in policing, tribal sovereignty and intercultural competency, she said.

After a team finished its investigation, its findings would go to a local prosecutor, but could head to the Attorney General's Office if charges were not brought.

A proposal for an Office of Independent Prosecution, meant to work in tandem with HB 1267, was also brought before the Legislature this year, but did not make it out of a committee.

HB 1267 would apply to cases occurring after July 2022, but after 2023 the OII could investigate prior cases if new evidence became available.

Entenman said the bill would improve what was started in Initiative 940.

Requested by the governor's office, the bill is based on recommendations from the governor's task force on police use of force that came about last year in response to Pierce County's failure to comply with I-940 in the investigation into the suffocation death of Manuel Ellis at the hands of Tacoma police in March 2020.

The task force was created after revelations that the Pierce County Sheriff's Department, which was tasked with independently investigating the Tacoma police, had done so despite the fact that one of its deputies had been involved in the Ellis incident, allegedly violating I-940, which bans law enforcement agencies from investigating their own officers. The Sheriff's Department also did not appoint two civilians from outside law enforcement to oversee the investigation.

The investigation was so flawed that Gov. Jay Inslee reassigned it to the Washington State Patrol. A decision about whether the officers involved will face criminal charges is expected by April, according to the Attorney General's Office.

James Bible, attorney for the Ellis family, pointed out that it was civilians who found witnesses and evidence in Ellis' case that Pierce County failed to collect.

"The people that actually conducted this investigation that led to the state jumping in were private citizens that were dedicated to finding the witnesses and did," Bible said.

Tacoma's mayor, Victoria Woodards, said the bill is the top priority for Tacoma this legislative session, citing a lack of trust in the system following Ellis' death.

Currently, state law does require an independent investigation team, with a police officer as a lead investigator and at least two non-law enforcement community members, to handle any instances of deadly force perpetrated by an officer.

The agency being investigated is generally not allowed to participate in the work.

Annalesa Thomas, whose son Leonard Thomas was killed by a SWAT unit in Fife in 2013, testified in support of the bill at a public hearing Monday, saying that the same officers who worked personally with the officer who killed her son later investigated that officer in another case.

She said the current independent investigation teams "are still police investigating police and will always have inherent conflicts of interest."

"The current investigative process does not have impartiality," Thomas said. "We must have impartiality to have accountability."

But Entenman's bill has met significant pushback from law enforcement and its supporters, and passed the House along party lines.

James McMahan, of the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs, saw problems with bill.

He said he doesn't see the proposed agency as being independent, that "it in fact appears to be a political appointee of the governor's office with a simple advisory board, not a governing board." Also, having civilians conduct criminal investigations, including homicides, could jeopardize the viability of an actual prosecution, he said.

Prosecutor Russell Brown compared the use of civilians for investigations into police-involved deaths to asking someone who's never performed open-heart surgery to "grab a scalpel and begin that process."

Though the proposal would break tradition, Entenman stressed the importance of rebuilding trust between law enforcement and the community.

"When entire communities do not trust those that the state has sanctioned with power over life and death, public safety is in peril," Entenman said.