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Washington state enacts police reform a year after George Floyd’s death

  • NEW YORK TIMES / 2020
                                Demonstrators protesting the death of George Floyd maintain their presence outside a police precinct in the Capitol Hill neighborhood of Seattle.

    NEW YORK TIMES / 2020

    Demonstrators protesting the death of George Floyd maintain their presence outside a police precinct in the Capitol Hill neighborhood of Seattle.

Washington became the latest state to enact sweeping police reforms in response to the police killing of George Floyd with the adoption this week of 12 new laws that ban chokeholds, require officers to announce their presence before raiding a home and call for the use of exhaustive de-escalation techniques before resorting to force.

The package of reforms, signed by Gov. Jay Inslee on Tuesday, follows similar legislation passed in other states since Floyd was killed by Minneapolis police last May, setting off a wave of protests against police abuse that continued into the summer. The new laws come as a policing bill named after Floyd has stalled in the U.S. Senate after being passed by the House of Representatives; President Joe Biden has called on lawmakers to pass it by Tuesday, which is the anniversary of Floyd’s death, but that seems unlikely.

With little federal action, more than 30 states — and many local governments — have passed a series of reforms over the past year. At least 16 states have limited or banned officers’ use of neck restraints, and 10 have required or increased funding for body cameras. Washington also joined several states that have required police officers to intervene, if possible, when they see a fellow officer using excessive force.

Also, Washington is among at least six states that have restricted officers’ use of “no-knock” warrants, which allow them to barge into a home without warning and which experts have said can make situations more dangerous in cases where residents may believe they are under attack. The state of Washington is among those that have banned the practice outright, joining a host of municipalities that have also done so. The police killing of Breonna Taylor during a raid on her apartment in Louisville, Kentucky, last year brought widespread attention to the no-knock warrant that was initially issued for the raid, although officers did knock on her apartment door in the end.

In signing the bills, Inslee, a Democrat, said Washington would be a leader in police transparency and accountability. In addition to the killing of Floyd, he also referenced the police killing last year of another Black man, Manuel Ellis, in Tacoma, Washington, which he said had made the need for new policing laws clear. Ellis, 33, died in March 2020 after several police officers punched and restrained him on the ground; his death was ruled a homicide, and the state Attorney General’s Office said it would decide this month whether to file criminal charges against the officers in that case.

“The crises of the past year have unmasked long-standing inequities in our society,” Inslee said in a statement, adding that government leaders had a “moral mandate to acknowledge these hard truths.”

Teresa Taylor, executive director of the Washington Council of Police and Sheriffs, a confederation of police unions that advocates for officers, said the group’s members were committed to implementing the changes.

“There is no profession under greater scrutiny, and no group of technical experts more adept at training and transforming the way they perform their duties than Washington’s peace officers,” Taylor said in an email. “This package of bills is significant and our members will approach the new requirements with the same professionalism they approach their duties every day.”

The new laws in Washington come a month after a jury in Minnesota found Derek Chauvin, a former Minneapolis police officer, guilty of murdering Floyd, a rare conviction for a police officer. Many activists have said it remains to be seen whether the verdict signaled that officers would be held more accountable for abuses. But the wave of legislation — which, in some cases, has been bipartisan — suggests that state legislatures are willing to act.

Still, despite the rush of new laws, some reform activists have said the bills do not go far enough to rein in police abuse.

In Minnesota, lawmakers passed a series of reforms last summer — including a ban on chokeholds — that were embraced by many top police officials whose departments were shaken by Floyd’s death. But lawmakers were able to pass the bill only after weeks of negotiations, during which Democrats dropped some of their more far-reaching proposals, such as having the state attorney general investigate police killings.

The new package of laws in Washington includes one that will create a state agency called the Office of Independent Investigations, led by a director appointed by Inslee. The office will be able to investigate any officer’s use of deadly force beginning in July 2022. The office will also be able to pursue cases that have already been investigated by other agencies if new evidence comes to light.

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