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Government and Politics
Dispatches from public radio's correspondent at the Washington Legislature. Austin Jenkins is the Olympia correspondent for the Northwest News Network. You can also see Austin on television as host of TVW's (the C–SPAN of Washington State) weekly public affairs program "Inside Olympia."

WA House passes ban on chokeholds; backs off complete ban on tear gas

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KUOW Photo / Megan Farmer
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An image of Manuel Ellis is taped to a utility pole on Thursday, June 4, 2020, near the intersection of Ainsworth Avenue South and 96th Street South in Tacoma. Ellis was killed by police on March 3rd, 2020

Police officers, along with jail and prison staff, would be barred from using neck holds or restraints designed to restrict a person’s airway or blood flow, but the use of tear gas would still be allowed in limited circumstances under a bill that’s passed the Washington House.

The police tactics measure, House Bill 1054, is a major plank in a sweeping police accountability agenda brought forth this year by majority Democrats. The focus on police reform follows last year’s protests nationally over the killings of Black people by police, including George Floyd in Minneapolis and Breonna Taylor in Louisville.

In Washington, the case of Manuel Ellis, who died after crying out “I can’t breathe” as he was restrained by Tacoma police officers, has also become a rallying cry for reform.

“While Washington state still has work to do to demand equity in our law enforcement, today’s vote is a step forward towards justice, accountability and racial equity,” said state Rep. Jesse Johnson, the prime sponsor of the measure, in a statement following approval of the bill.

Before final passage on Saturday, the bill was amended in some significant ways.

Instead of an outright ban on police deploying tear gas, the legislation would now allow police agencies to use tear gas -- as a last resort -- during a riot, hostage situation or when someone is barricaded if there’s a clear risk of serious harm.

However, before police resorted to tear gas they would have to exhaust other options and then twice warn of their intent to use the gas. Also, the decision would have to be authorized by the chief law enforcement officer of the agency, such as the sheriff or police chief.

Another amendment eliminated what was originally intended as a blanket ban on the use of police dogs to apprehend someone. Instead, the state’s Criminal Justice Training Commission, which trains police officers, would be tasked with convening a work group to develop a model policy on the training and use of police K-9s.

Johnson, who agreed to the change, said his primary concern is that people of color are disproportionately victims of police dog bites which can result in hospitalization. He’s hopeful the model policy would address that.

The work group would be made up of law enforcement representatives, people who have lost loved ones to police violence, as well as representatives of Washington’s communities of color and tribes.

Another amendment addressed the bill’s restriction on officers firing upon a moving car. That provision was clarified to make clear that officers can shoot if the car is being used as a deadly weapon and there’s no other reasonable means to avoid potential serious harm.

Two other amendments made changes to the bill’s ban on police departments acquiring and using military-grade equipment.

One exempted non-explosive grenades like stun grenades and blast balls from the bill’s ban on grenades. That same amendment also removed grenade launchers from the definition of prohibited military equipment. Another amendment removed silencers from that definition.

While five of the six amendments that were adopted on House floor were sponsored by minority Republicans, in the end only one Republican, Rep. Bruce Chandler of Granger, voted with Democrats on final passage. The nearly party-line vote for the bill was 54 to 43 with one lawmaker not voting.

“Our officers are already held to a very high standard,” said state Rep. Gina Mosbrucker, the ranking Republican on the House Public Safety Committee, in a statement following her "no" vote. “We should not make that standard an impossible one.”

Before the vote, Democrats rejected a handful of other Republican amendments, including one that would have removed the restriction on the use of neck restraints while also allowing police officers to use chokeholds in circumstances where deadly force is justifiable. Many police departments in Washington and nationally already ban neck and chokeholds.

During the floor debate Saturday, one of the criticisms of the bill was that it will remove non-lethal options from police officers.

“When you take away the less lethal tools, now you’re telling that law enforcement officer, you can’t use that, all you have left is a lethal tool -- we don’t want to do it,” said Republican state Rep. Brad Klippert, a Benton County Sheriff’s deputy.

The police tactics bill also includes strict new limits on police pursuits, a ban on no-knock warrants and requires that uniformed police officers can be identified by name or badge number.

Prior to Saturday’s vote, the Washington Fraternal Order of Police, which represents approximately 3,000 police officers in Washington, urged passage of the measure.

“We recognize the need to change law enforcement procedures to meet our communities’ expectations and strengthen trust with those we serve,” said WAFOP President Marco Monteblanco in a statement.

Meanwhile, the head of the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs (WASPC) said Monday that he’s hopeful his organization will ultimately be able to support the bill.

“We’re not quite there yet, but we really appreciate the work of the sponsor and I think we’re going to get there,” said Steve Strachan, WASPC’s executive director.

Specifically, Strachan said WASPC is concerned about the restriction on neck restraints and some of the provisions related to vehicle pursuits.

The bill next goes to the state Senate for consideration where it could be amended further. 

The police tactics bill is a top priority this year of the Washington Coalition for Police Accountability (WCPA), a group that includes family members who have lost loved ones to police use of deadly force.

“Officers hold state sanctioned power over life and death, and it is critical that they handle that power with care,” WCPA said in a statement following Saturday’s vote. “Removing these harmful tactics is a positive step in that direction.”

Three of the group’s other priority bills are expected to get votes in the Washington House in the coming days. One would allow civil penalties for police misconduct, a second would redefine when deadly force is allowed and the third would create an independent state office to investigate police use of deadly force.

A fifth bill, SB 5051, has cleared the state Senate. Sponsored by Democratic state Sen. Jamie Pedersen, it would expand the list of misconduct that can lead to an officer being decertified and create a publicly searchable database of complaints against police officers, among other changes.

The Washington Senate has also passed a bill sponsored by Democratic state Sen. Manka Dhingra that would require police officers to intervene if they witness a fellow officer using excessive force.

Several other police accountability bills have also been introduced this year.

Separately, the Washington House has passed a bill sponsored by Republican state Rep. Jacquelin Maycumber, a former law enforcement officer, to encourage more diversity among police recruits.