Washington state Democrats wanted to ban tear gas and police chokeholds in 2021, but a bill intended to do both may fall short of what they promised voters.
In December, Washington Democrats pledged to pass a long list of police reforms that Black Lives Matter activists marched for last summer in Seattle and elsewhere. This session, a public database on the use of force, de-escalation training, and a more comprehensive duty to intervene law make up most of the bills the party will have succeeded in passing this year.
House Bill 1054 stood out when introduced in January as the most ambitious effort to reshape policing statewide. Introduced by state Rep. Jesse Johnson, D-Federal Way, the bill banned police from using tear gas and military-grade weapons ranging from grenades and armored vehicles to .50 caliber guns and riot munition launchers. It also sought to end no-knock warrants, the use of police dogs to catch fleeing suspects, and pursuits like the one that took the life of Giovonn Joseph-McDade of Auburn in 2017.
Support for the bill has been high among activists calling for all of the above and low among police unions who claim it puts officers' lives on the line. Protesters in Seattle have argued in court that tear gas and rubber bullets incentivize police to use indiscriminate violence more often. They point to Seattle and some 19,000 complaints against the police in 2020.
Four months and nine amendments later, supporters say HB 1054 remains the state's most robust answer to claims of police brutality — at least on paper. It bans “intentional” chokeholds and neck restraints like the one used to kill George Floyd last year. It also ends no-knock warrants as initially written. The rest of the bill differs from its original version.
HB 1054 passed the House on a 54-43 vote in February and the Senate by a vote of 27-22 in April. It picked up two “no” votes from state Sen. Steve Hobbs, D-Lake Stevens, and state Sen. Tim Sheldon, D-Potlatch. Bipartisan opposition in the Senate has sent the chamber's Democrats scrambling to meet their colleagues halfway to ensure the legislation survives.
House and Senate Democrats agreed to a striking amendment on Thursday that leaves most practices to officers' discretion. In it, tear gas is treated as a last resort when “all available and appropriate alternatives have been exhausted,” a scenario included in an amendment from state Rep. Jeff Holy, R-Four Lakes. Police pursuits and K-9 units would be more limited under two amendments from state Reps. Jacqueline Maycumber, R-Republic, and Gina Mosbrucker, R-Goldendale. Washington police would retain their access to armored transport and non-lethal stun and flash grenades, as proposed by state Rep. Matt Boehnke, R-Kennewick.
If passed this week, the police reform will have succeeded where others have failed. Seattle couldn't enact reforms at the local level due to recent legal challenges in federal court.
The bill awaits final passage by both chambers of the state legislature before it can be signed into law by Gov. Jay Inslee. Washington lawmakers are scheduled to adjourn on Sunday.
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