To change bad police department cultures, we need HB 1445

Wednesday, December 6, 2023
A photograph of multiple stacks of papers and file folders
What can be done when it seems a police department — not just an individual officer — is harming people? When we see a department culture where officers and police leaders, mock people killed by police, target Black Lives Matter supporters, align with white supremacist extremists, or try to cover up killings of people who are just trying to walk home safe at night, something must be done. But what?

There isn’t a way for individuals to sue a department to change a policy like chokehold use – we had to go to the state legislature to do that. For an investigation or lawsuit into systemic issues at a department, the main police accountability tool is to go to the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) and request an investigation and potentially a consent decree – such as the one in place in Seattle. However, given that the DOJ serves the whole country, including over 18,000 local departments, it does not have the capacity to address each agency engaged in unlawful conduct. Just ask Shelly Washington and Nickiea Hunter who lost loved ones to police violence in Clark County, or the 20 advocacy organizations there whom the ACLU-WA worked with to file a letter in 2021 requesting a DOJ investigation. The letter detailed reports of excessive force, discriminatory policing, and favoritism toward known white supremacist extremist groups. Two years later, the DOJ is “still reviewing” that request. In the meantime, harm continues. Moreover, when the DOJ has engaged, such as with the consent decree in Seattle that may soon end, it has been extraordinarily costly and time consuming.

That is where House Bill 1445 comes in. The Attorney General (AG) Civil Rights Investigations and Reform bill, sponsored by Senator Drew Hansen, bill strengthens and clarifies the Washington Attorney General’s civil authority to investigate and sue where there are systemic failures at a department, resulting in violations of the Washington constitution or state laws. The AG’s office is well-positioned to be judicious and efficient in investigating Washington departments, and the bill would help ensure a fundamental baseline of constitutional policing across the state.

HB 1445 is desperately needed in Washington. Just this year, we saw two incidents where officers mocked people killed by their department. Footage released over the summer of an officer break room showed a tombstone mocking Damarius Butts, a 19-year-old Black man killed by the Seattle Police Department. Soon after that, more footage was released of two police leaders minimizing the life of 23-year-old Jaahnavi Kandula, who was killed by officers while lawfully walking across the street. These incidents make us question the department’s ability to keep communities safe. Are these a pattern or a few bad apples? An investigation by Washington’s AG civil rights department could help understand what led to this behavior and how to stop it.

The ongoing trial of the three officers accused of killing Manny Ellis also highlights why HB 1445 is needed. While a trial can potentially hold an officer accountable for a horrific incident, it also raises questions about the conditions at the department that allowed the killing to happen in the first place. For example, the trial has unearthed concerns by the medical examiner that police withheld vital information that would have aided his initial report, causing him to question other deaths where the Tacoma Police Department restrained people. The trial has also raised questions about the officers’ initial claims that Mr. Ellis resisted arrest — claims that were used to justify using force.

These are the kinds of issues the AG’s civil rights unit could investigate under HB 1445. In Colorado, where the state AG already has this power, the office investigated the Aurora Police Department after the killing of Elijah McClain, a 23-year-old Black massage therapist who was beaten by police and put into a chokehold. Two of the officers accused of killing him were recently acquitted, but the AG’s office found that the killing was one in a pattern of cases involving excessive force, immediate escalation to violence, and officers claiming victims “resisted arrest” even when they didn’t — violations of the constitution and state law.

Does Tacoma PD have a pattern of using excessive force or immediately escalating violence? Does Clark County or Vancouver PD? We don’t know, and right now the state doesn’t have the tools to find out. We urge lawmakers to pass HB 1445 so the AG’s office can protect against systemic failure to bring a department’s policies, practices, trainings, discipline, and outcomes into compliance with the Washington constitution and state law. In the meantime, community members are watching officers and left wondering where they can go for help when they can’t go to the police.

Get Involved 

Show your support for HB 1445 by sending a letter to your lawmakers here

Learn more about our work around policing by reading our blog series: What Will It Take To Stop Police Violence