The other day I was driving a little faster than what the speed limit called for, and a motorcycle cop pulled me over. As he approached my driver side window, he tapped the middle of his chest to make me aware of his body cam, and he announced that he was recording the traffic stop. In that moment, I thought my life could end. I imagined him blowing my brains out through the passenger side seat and window. So when he asked for my ID, I made sure to go through my ‘P.O.P.s’ (the pull-over-protocols that I taught my son when he got his driver’s license); pray, be polite, move as slowly as possible, and keep your hands and wallet visible at all costs ‘cause it could cost you your life.
I normally keep my wallet out and visible, but this time I forgot to. This time my gun-colored wallet was in my left pocket out of sight. I reached for it slowly and kept my left peripheral eye on him, he nonchalantly placed his hand on his gun. I gave him my ID, he ran it, wrote my citation, and I was on my way.
Every day, millions of Black mothers and fathers kiss their Black children on their foreheads before they leave for school or work or to play at the park. Us parents hope and pray that our Black children don’t have the fatal misfortune of becoming the next trending hashtag if they run into a police officer that fears for their life during a chance encounter. The chances are high. It’s not just the Black mothers and fathers that have this fear for their Black children, it’s every single Black one of us. We see a cop car, our hearts drop, we pray, we think of our loved ones and the last time we said I love you to them. Every. Single. Time.
This amount of emotional and psychological hyper-vigilance we are put through just to survive is not just exhausting; it’s unjust. According to statista.com, Black people are 2.5x more likely to be killed by police in a traffic stop than white people. This is fact. Another fact is this: the police officers that wake up every morning and “put themselves in harm’s way when they go to work”—as Representative Brad Klippert (R) of the 8th Legislative District (Kennewick, WA) states in his recent guest opinion in the Tri-City Herald—if those officers kill a Black person for any reason, they can bet on the “good faith standard” to get them off the hook. Meaning in the eyes of the current laws and the judgement of prosecutors, basically all a police officer has to declare is that for whatever reason he or she or they “feared for their life,” and they walk. No accountability. It doesn’t take much research to find case after case of police officers across the country “fearing for their lives” and not being held accountable for the most obvious acts of unnecessary and deadly police force.
There is currently a track record of zero accountability in the state of Washington for deadly use of force. In fact, in the last 132 years in Washington State there was only one officer convicted, which was during the Jim Crow era, and that officer was pardoned by the Governor at the time.
You read that correctly. There was more police accountability in Washington state during Jim Crow than in today’s New Jim Crow.
There’s a real necessity and urgency to check police power. Furthermore, those in any position of power or privilege—whether inherited by complexion, class, or whatever the caste case may be, who have never spent a day living as a Black person in America under the stifling oppression of the current laws that kill so many unarmed Black people—should lean in to what is being said here. If we as everyday citizens do not check this power, then this oppression will grow and systematically come for every last one of us.
The bills that are currently being debated that demand more police accountability are as follows, and they need your support. Black people need your support. I need your support.
HB 1054 is a bill designed to check the power of police use of force and for better de-escalation tactics. This bill encourages police to use the minimum amount of force necessary, to have less lethal options to apprehend a person, and to use deadly force as the very last possible option. It also bans choke holds, neck restraints, no knock warrants, and military weapons. Recently, the FOP (Fraternal Order of Police) came out in support of this bill.
HB 1202 calls for Peace Officer Accountability. This bill aims to hold officers accountable by creating a way to pursue legal action for people harmed by police misconduct. Individuals can bring a lawsuit for misconduct including constitutional violations, torts, and violations of state law like KWW (Keep Washington Working). This bill is needed because there aren’t many ways to legally hold officers or police departments accountable when they violate the very laws they are entrusted and paid to enforce. This bill also removes the obstacles to civil liability such as qualified immunity, which has undermined justice for even the most egregious acts of misconduct.
HB 1267 will create an unbiased independent investigations agency that investigates police use of force. Rather than having law enforcement investigating themselves when any form of police use of force is used, this bill will establish a truly unbiased, independent investigations agency that would bring us closer to justice. In the state of Washington alone, there hasn’t been one officer held accountable when that officer has shot and killed an unarmed civilian.
HB 1310, simply put, reduces the number of situations in which an officer can say that their use of force is justified. It changes the deadly force standard and calls for greater de-escalation measures to be taken. It also outlines how officers must treat an individual they are detaining or apprehending.
HB 1499 will provide behavioral health system responses to individuals with substance use disorders rather than criminalizing them and sending them to jail or prison. The intended results would be the saving of lives, de-stigmatizing addiction, and creating compassion for those that struggle in their families and communities with said substance use disorders.
The aforementioned bills all have one urgent need in common: the checking of unbridled power to save innocent lives.
The “good faith standard” of I940 protects officers that use deadly force on unarmed people. So if an officer fears for their life, they are justified in the act of homicide. Let’s put that into perspective here. What if I, knowing that I am 100% innocent of any wrongdoing or crime, get pulled over by a police officer that “fears for their life” but I also fear for my life? The officer is protected. But what laws are in place for my protection? Where’s my “good faith standard”? What if I fear for my life and take action to stop the cop from harming or killing me? What is justice if those who are assigned to guard it are the violators, abusers, and evaders of it?
The short answer is corruption. The long answer can be found in the bills outlined in this article.
“Recent events throughout our nation have pointed a negative spotlight on our law enforcement officers and the tough jobs they do every day,” says Representative Klippert. The nationwide spotlight is on state sanctioned Black murder by those paid to protect ALL of the public’s citizens—that is where the “negativity” should be highlighted. Black people are killed at a disproportionate rate in everyday situations, from playing at a playground (Tamir Rice), to sleeping in bed (Breonna Taylor), to walking home with skittles in hand (Trayvon Martin), to the one that sparked worldwide protests (George Floyd).
While some have argued that the police reform bills will have unintended consequences, what this argument fails to address is why so many of us in Washington state and across the United States are pushing for such measures to be taken, and it’s so incredibly simple to spell out: justice.
These bills will not take away from public safety; they will add to it. They will hold officers accountable. They will decriminalize community members that have substance use disorders. We are all complicit when we are apathetic and desensitized to injustice.
I read a quote recently by attorney Olayemi Olurun who said, “Police don’t have the right to kill you for not following their instructions or if they believe you’ve broken the law. Stop perpetuating the idea that they do; they don’t. Start valuing the lives of human beings over police feelings. It’s a JOB; they aren’t gods amongst men.”
It’s easy to post #BlackLivesMatter on your social media thread. That display of solidarity is appreciated and welcomed. If you want to make a real difference at the state level and for the future of Black lives, then call the Legislative Hotline (1-800-562-6000) to tell your legislator that you support these bills and that they should, too. These bills are intended to check power to preserve the sanctity of human life.
The officer that pulled me over for speeding the other day cut me a break and reduced the citation before sending me on my way. Was I lucky? Possibly. I would like to believe it’s that I know better than to forget my own training. I would like to believe that following the ‘P.O.P.s’ could keep all Black people from becoming the next trending hashtag. But that’s fallacy, and one that places the onus of protection on individuals and not on the system that we are supposed to trust to keep us safe. It’s time we hold our police accountable for living up to their motto to “protect and serve”. The reality is that the universe painstakingly arcs towards justice inch by inch, policy by policy, law by law—and when readers such as yourselves demand that your legislator deliver that justice.
Jordan Chaney is a Poet and a member of Governor Inslee’s Task Force for Independent Investigations of Police Use of Force as well as a member of the Access to Justice Board for Washington State.
Photo by Ashley Owen on Unsplash