Thursday, February 4, 2016

Black Alliance Packs Hearing for Police Deadly Force Bill, HB 2907

Above: Dr. Karen Johnson, Black Alliance of Thurston County, testifies in support of HB 2907 before the House Public Safety committee chaired by Representative Roger Goodman (D-45) on Wednesday. 

Senator Fraser Sponsors SB 6621 Calling for Policing Task Force, Hearing Also on Wednesday

By Janine Gates

The room was packed for a public hearing on Wednesday for HB 2907, which seeks to clarify state law governing the use of deadly force by police officers. The bill, spearheaded by the Black Alliance of Thurston County, was sponsored by Representative Luis Moscoso (D-1).

Washington State House Public Safety Committee Committee chair Representative Roger Goodman (D-45) said that 65 people signed up to testify. Only a handful was able to give their testimony, although he allowed the meeting to go 20 minutes longer than expected.

Most testified in support of the bill, with some, including the Washington Association of Prosecuting Attorneys, Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs, and Concerns of Police Survivors, opposing or expressing concerns.

Dr. Karen Johnson, chair of the Black Alliance of Thurston County, presented an overview of how the group began its efforts just a few short months ago, and described her organization’s efforts to build a relationship with Olympia Police Chief Ronnie Roberts after the officer involved shooting of two African American young men in Olympia.

Johnson promoted the police department’s mission and strategic plan, and said the Black Alliance is eager to help the department garner the respect and trust of Olympia residents, and to make sure police get the training they need to begin changing the culture within the department.

Encouraged by her story, Representative Goodman praised Johnson’s efforts.

“...We have a lack of trust between communities and law enforcement, but it seems you’ve done a lot of work on a local level to bring people together….Who did you bring to the table and is there a template for what we could do on a state level?” he asked.

Johnson responded that it’s about communication and having courageous community conversations about racial bias and institutional racism with the police department, and exploring the experiences and questions around those themes.

She said Olympia’s next community conversation with the Olympia Police Department is scheduled for March 2.

“I think we’ve been doing an awful lot of talking to them, and it’s time we start listening to what they need from us,” said Johnson.

“I agree, I think we need to listen to the police,” responded Goodman.

Jamira Burley, with Amnesty International’s campaign on criminal justice and gun violence, spoke in support of the bill, saying that HB 2907 takes significant steps to provide needed clarity and accountability in regards to the use of lethal force by officers.

Burley said that the use of lethal force by police in the February 2015 case involving Antonio Zambrano-Montes, a farm laborer with a history of mental health issues who was shot and killed by police in Pasco, was inconsistent with international law and standards on the use of lethal force.

Lisa Daugaard, director of the Public Defender Association in Seattle, also spoke in support of the bill and described the 2010 killing of Seattle Native American woodcarver John T. Williams by a Seattle police officer.

“The Seattle Police Department itself concluded that the killing violated policy on use of force, the first time that had happened in decades. This was not a reasonable mistake – it was an unreasonable mistake, at best. Officer Birk was not reasonable in thinking he was under attack, and he was not reasonable in thinking deadly force was necessary to forestall any attack. This was widely accepted. If ever a killing by a police officer might be prosecuted as a crime under the current law, it seemed to most observers that it would be this one. And yet Ian Birk was not prosecuted…..”

“…For those who are uncomfortable with the approach taken in this bill: it’s time to offer an alternative solution that would have allowed a prosecution in Mr. Williams’ death. A group of concerned community leaders has done its best to propose a solution that is fair to officers and community members alike. If you are uncomfortable with this solution, please, identify another that will change outcomes in the most egregious of these cases,” said Daugaard.

Noah Seidel of Lacey who represents Self-Advocates in Leadership, a group of over 200 people with developmental disabilities, also spoke in support of the bill.

“Mental health problems is not the only kind of disability that people have had when killed by police officers. John T. Williams…was also partially deaf. When he was killed, the officer was behind him telling him to stop. Disability was a factor....We need to do a better job holding law enforcement accountable to keep people safe,” said Seidel.

Seidel said that, according to a 2013 report by the Treatment Advocacy Center and National Sheriffs’ Association, at least half of the people shot and killed by police between 1980 and 2008 in the United States had mental health problems.

Rick Williams, the older brother of John T. Williams, also spoke.

“For five years all this talking and no action…He (Officer Birk) gets a free pass. Why is this guy still walking free? It’s not right…I can’t get my brother back but I can help people stand up for him. Somebody has got to it do because this is all wrong,” said Williams.

The committee also heard testimony about HB 2908, which creates a 13 member joint legislative task force on community policing standards. The bill’s prime sponsor, Representative Cindy Ryu, (D-32), spoke to her bill.

James McMahon, policy director with the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs, did not necessarily oppose the bill, but suggested that more data be gathered first before a task force begins to discuss the issue.

Senator Fraser Sponsors SB 6621 Calling for Policing Task Force, Hearing Also on Wednesday

Above: Rick Williams, seated, Jay Westwind Wolf, a Mohegan Tribal member who is also on the Seattle Community Police Commission, Karen Johnson of the Black Alliance of Thurston County, and Thelma Jackson, also of the Black Alliance of Thurston County, gather just before the Senate Law and Justice Committee heard SB 6621, sponsored by Senator Karen Fraser (D-22).

Later on Wednesday, SB 6621 was heard by the Senate Law and Justice Committee, chaired by Senator Mike Padden (R-4).

SB 6621, sponsored by Senator Karen Fraser (D-22), creates a 22 member task force on policing and the use of deadly force convened by the Washington State Institute for Public Policy. It contains several directives and would provide recommendations to the Legislature related to statute changes related to the use of deadly force by an officer. The task force would report its findings and provide recommendations to the governor by December 1, 2016.

Fraser spoke to her bill and said it was written in cooperation with the Black Alliance of Thurston County.

Acknowledging the task force proposed in HB 2908, Fraser said, “I’m not wedded to how we structure the task force…but the core idea is to bring the relevant people together to talk about this and how we want to move ahead in the future….We need all the right people involved in this,” she said.

Similar to his testimony for HB 2908, James McMahon, policy director, Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs, expressed concerns about the bill and would like data to be collected on the use of force before a task force is formed.

Craig Bulkley, president of the Washington Council of Police and Sheriffs, also expressed concerns, saying that a problem has not been identified with the current statute, data needs to be collected, and the bill does not have a means to do that. He said that according to the FBI, 107 officers have been killed nationally in the line of duty, and 49,851 were assaulted in 2013.

In Washington State, 16 people were shot and killed by law enforcement in 2015. According to research by The Seattle Times, there were 213 Washington State police related fatalities between 2004 – 2014.

In 2015, the Guardian newspaper tracked the number of deaths in the United States due to interactions with law enforcement, documenting 1,015 people killed by police using firearms. Of that total, 25.6% of those killed were African American and 17.5% were Latino. More than 10% - 107 individuals - were unarmed when they were shot and killed by police.

For more information about the HB 2907, Amnesty International's Report on Deadly Force, the Black Alliance of Thurston County, Karen Johnson, the City of Olympia’s Ad Hoc Committee on Police and Community Relations, body cameras, and other police related issues in Olympia, go to Little Hollywood,, and type key words into the search button.