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Former King County Sheriff Open To Removing ‘Malice’ From Deadly Force Law

Former King County Sheriff Sue Rahr, who now heads Washington's Criminal Justice Training Commission, speaks with host Austin Jenkin on the set of TVW's ''Inside Olympia'' program. She says she's not opposed to changing the state's deadly force law.

The head of Washington’s training academy for police officers says she’s open to changing the state’s deadly force law. Current law protects officers from prosecution unless they act in bad faith and with malice.

Former King County Sheriff Sue Rahr, who now heads Washington’s Criminal Justice Training Commission, says she’s not opposed to taking the word “malice” out of Washington’s law and leaving “good faith” in.

"I think that would be a reasonable solution because good faith I think is a reasonable distinction,"Rahr says.

But she is cautious about the message a change would send to police officers.

"To say that we want to lower the bar and make it easier to charge you with the crime, that’s going to cause a very defensive, negative reaction, I think, from most police officers," she says.

Rahr, a member of a legislative task force on reducing violent encounters between the police and the public, spoke as a guest on TVW’s “Inside Olympia” television program.

The 27-member legislative task force is charged with reviewing current laws regarding the use of deadly force. Rahr believes the key to reducing deadly encounters is solid training and appropriate tactics, not changing the law.

The task force has been described as “divided”over changing Washington’s deadly force law, enacted in 1986 and often described as the most protective law in the nation for police officers.

According to The Seattle Times, between 2005 and 2014, 213 people were killed by Washington police officers, but only one officer was charged with illegal use of deadly force. He was ultimately acquitted.

Earlier this month, Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson cited the state’s current “legal standard for prosecution” in his decision not to pursue criminal charges against the officers involved in last year’s fatal shooting of Antonio Zambrano-Montes in Pasco.

Ferguson also raised the issue of police training and alternatives to deadly force.

Writing to Governor Jay Inslee, Ferguson said, “I believe that the use of deadly force in this case, though legally justified, was not the only possible way to protect the police and the public from his dangerous behavior.” 

In addition to reviewing deadly force laws, the legislative task force must review alternatives to deadly force, including the use of tasers and other nonlethal weapons.

The task force has a Dec.1 deadline to submit a report to lawmakers. If there is disagreement, a minority report can be submitted too.

Members of the task force include lawmakers, police, prosecutors, public defenders, representatives of civil rights and minority groups and advocates for the disabled. 

A group calling itself Washington For Good Policing is also gathering signatures for a proposed initiative to the legislature that would change Washington’s deadly force law. Supporters are calling Initiative 873 the “John T. Williams Bill,” in honor of a Native American woodcarver who was shot to death by a Seattle police officer in 2010.

Since January 2004, Austin Jenkins has been the Olympia-based political reporter for the Northwest News Network. In that position, Austin covers Northwest politics and public policy, as well as the Washington State Legislature. You can also see Austin on television as host of TVW's (the C–SPAN of Washington State) Emmy-nominated public affairs program "Inside Olympia."