OLYMPIA — Law enforcement officers in Washington may soon have less legal protection if they engage in unconstitutional behavior.
A bill making its way through the Legislature aims to tackle qualified immunity, a practice created by the Supreme Court that protects individual officers from civil liability if they cause injury while on the job. In Washington, the courts recognize officers as entitled to qualified immunity if they were acting reasonably according to procedures dictated by the law or by their superiors.
Supporters say removing the qualified immunity defense could make it easier for people who were injured or feel their rights were violated by police to sue, while opponents say removing the protections would make officers and communities less safe.
The proposal, sponsored by Rep. My-Linh Thai, D-Bellevue, passed out of the state House Appropriations committee on Thursday, just a few weeks after body camera footage from Memphis police showed the death of Tyre Nichols and renewed a national push for restricting qualified immunity. It also came just days after the U.S. Supreme Court rejected an appeal from a man who was arrested for making fun of police on social media after the lower court said the officers have qualified immunity.
This is the third year the bill has come before the Legislature, but Thai said the proposal this year is different.
"As government, we are elected to protect our people," Thai said. "We are elected to set up policies that have people at the center of our mind. We also have the responsibility to check our own actions from time to time."
The bill would allow any person injured by an officer to bring a cause of action if the officer did something unlawful under the state constitution, state law governing officers' use of immigration or citizenship status, or state law governing reasonable care and use of force.
An officer could argue they complied with a practice, policy or official training.
If an officer uses that defense, the liability then falls on the employer unless the training was provided by the Criminal Justice Training Center or guidance drafted by the Attorney General's Office.
House Speaker Laurie Jinkins, D-Tacoma, told reporters Thursday the bill is another way the Legislature is finding ways to keep communities safe while also holding officers accountable.
"I do think we're continuing to think about and talk about and try to find the right balance," she said.
Supporters of the bill say it would be a significant step forward in helping victims of police violence.
"We must expect our law enforcement officers to uphold the Washington State Constitution," said Sonia Joseph, a member of the Washington Coalition for Police Accountability. Her son Giovonn Joseph-McDade was killed by Kent police in 2017.
Opponents of the bill say it would make communities less safe.
Rep. Joe Schmick, R-Colfax, said it would discourage people from joining law enforcement.
"I have to ask myself, will this help to bring more folks in or will it detract folks?" he said. "I question that."
Spokane Police Chief Craig Meidl said qualified immunity is rarely used and must be approved by a judge. If officers knowingly and intentionally violate the law, they cannot claim qualified immunity.
"Just because qualified immunity exists, doesn't mean there are not other opportunities for those who feel like their rights have been violated to pursue recourse in the courts of law," Meidl said.
Spokane County Sheriff John Nowels agreed, saying officers won't be able to act with decisiveness because if they make a good-faith mistake, they could face charges.
"The only effect of removing qualified immunity from them is, is if they make a good faith mistake," Nowels said. "They can still be held liable for it."
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