Police bill gets pushback

Bill would give Attorney General more oversight power

PORT ANGELES — The state Legislature is considering a bill that would expand the power of the Attorney General’s office to investigate and prosecute police departments, but municipal and police groups are concerned about the impacts.

House Bill 1445 — currently before the House Rules Committee — would give the state Attorney General power to investigate departments similar to that of the U.S. Department of Justice but for violations of the state constitution or law.

According to the bill’s report document, HB 1445 would grant the AG the authority to “investigate violations of the state Constitution and state law, on its own initiative or in response to investigations or reports from independent oversight bodies; issue written civil investigation demands for documents, oral testimony, and answers to written interrogatories; and institute civil actions in the courts for injunctive or declaratory relief, damages, costs, and reasonable attorney’s fees.”

It’s needed, according to the bill’s sponsor state Sen. Drew Hansen, D-Bainbridge Island, because the U.S. Department of Justice has limited resources to respond to state requests to investigate certain departments, and the state should have similar powers. Hansen submitted the bill as a member of the House of Representatives.

“It makes sense to make sure there’s parallel authority,” Hansen said.

The attorney general’s office already has broad powers to investigate, but Hansen said sometimes cities or departments can challenge the AG’s authority to do so, and that the bill would clarify that power.

“Sometimes agencies will challenge whether or not the AG does have the authority to intervene, the bill would remove any doubt or challenge about that,” Hansen said.

In 2019, the Attorney General’s office tried to sue the city of Sunnyside in Yakima County over a perceived civil rights violation, but the city was able to successfully argue the state didn’t have the authority to intervene because the issue only impacted residents of Sunnyside.

Last year, the Attorney General’s office asked the state Supreme Court to reverse that decision. The case is still before the court.

“This bill is really trying to fill a gap,” said Enoka Herat, policing and immigration policy program director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington, which supports the bill.

“If there is harm or constitutional violations, there are ways to sue an individual officer but you can’t really change something at the departmental level,” Herat said.

Similar laws have been passed in Colorado, Nevada and Virginia, Herat said, and are meant to give the state the power to compel change within a law enforcement agency.

The bill would also require the AG’s office to publish guidelines by Sept. 1, covering model policies for law enforcement agency accountability systems; specifying model practices for receiving complaints of serious misconduct; conducting investigations of serious misconduct; imposing discipline for serious misconduct and addressing disciplinary appeals.

Herat gave the example of Auburn Police Officer Jeffery Nelson, who was charged with murder and assault in 2020 for killing a 26-year-old in the line of duty the year before. An investigation found that Nelson has 65 use-of-force counts and had repeatedly been offered up for discipline before the 2019 incident.

“I think most departments and officers are following the constitution and state law,” Herat said. “If they’re not, that’s a problem. If there are violations, that’s concerning.”

The bill would also give the AG’s office power to subpoena documents and oral testimony from officers. Currently, the AG’s office relies on public records requests for such information, Herat said.

But the bill has also received strong pushback from the Washington Association of Cities and the Washington Association of Sheriffs, who criticized the bill for placing additional liabilities on departments while providing no support for staffing or training.

“(HB 1445) does nothing to support victims, reduce crime or provide additional resources to local law enforcement agencies,” said Steven Strachan, WASPC’s executive director. “Instead, it focuses on granting the AG broad power to sue local law enforcement and corrections agencies for perceived ‘misconduct’. On its face, HB 1445 would authorize the Attorney General to sue Washington’s law enforcement agencies based on media reports and/or political pressure.”

WASPC also noted that state law enforcement agencies — the Department of Corrections and the Washington State Patrol — were exempted from the bill.

Washington Association of Cities issued a statement asking lawmakers to oppose the legislation both last year when the legislation was first submitted and again this year.

“AWC and cities across the state opposed these bills, which would have greatly increased liability exposure for cities, driven up settlement and litigation costs, made liability insurance more expensive, and unfairly punished cities without offering less adversarial means to actually fix police misconduct,” the group said in a statement.

Port Angeles Police Chief Brian Smith said his department already complies with several accountability measures and has taken the time to receive and maintain WASPC accreditation. If HB 1445 were to pass, it would add extra requirements to the department without providing additional resources to fulfill them.

“Nothing’s been added to us in terms of extra capacity,” Smith said, “Nothings been added that would make that easier in terms of funding or staffing.”

Smith was also critical of what he felt was an adversarial approach by the bill which would establish several punitive measures with no effort at collaboration.

Smith said the bill seemed to indicate some lawmakers believed, “the best way to get police to do good work in Washington is to get people to sue us.”

Not all police groups are opposed to the bill. Last year, the Fraternal Order of Police of Washington issued a statement supporting the bill.

“In our experience, the root cause of unacceptable actions by peace officers in the field can often be directly traced to the hiring practices, training, and culture of the agency,” said Marco Monteblanco, WAFOP president. “To hold a peace officer accountable without examining agency culture and practices would be inappropriate and will not result in meaningful changes.”

HB 1445 was last heard before the House Rules Committee on Jan. 23, where it was placed on second reading.

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Reporter Peter Segall can be reached at peter.segall@peninsulanews.us.

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