Families of those shot by police speak out for I-940

Photo by Alex Garland

Supporters hope Initiative 940 will change Washington state policy so fatal police shootings happen less often and so there’s more accountability when they occur. Gathering on a few Seattle City Hall steps Friday, a crowd representing 33 different families impacted by police killings gathered in support of I-940 in the hopes of preventing future deaths.

The Puget Sound region witnessed a slew of police killings in the past year: Renee Davis Oct. 21, 2016, Jacqueline Salyers on Jan. 28, Daniel Covarrubias in April, Tommy Le June 13, Charleena Lyles June 18, Giovonn Joseph-McDade June 24. All of them were people of color. Salyers, Davis and Lyles were all pregnant when killed.

“What else did we think would come with this when the police are investigating themselves,” asked Katrina Johnson, Lyles’ cousin. “They keep killing people and getting away with it.”

Via CHS, Capitol Hill Seattle Blog

I-940 aims to hold police accountable for violent actions. The initiative, changing the malice standard for and self-investigation by police, stems from Che Taylor’s fatal shooting from February last year.

Earlier this week, The Seattle Times reported the conclusions of an official review that showed the officers actions were within department policy when the 30-year-old Lyles was shot to death. SPD officers Steven McNew and Jason Anderson shot Lyles seven times at her apartment on June 18 while responding to a burglary call.

Johnson said the family is “beyond devastated” but not surprised.

“If her death is within policy, policy needs to change,” she said.

I-940 would require and change a number of police practices and standards. It calls for police to have de-escalation, first aid and mental health training. Officers must also provide first aid at the scene under certain circumstances. I-940 would establish a good faith standard for the use of deadly force and requires a completely independent investigation when it results in death or injury. The initiative requires tribal involvement in investigations if a tribal member is killed or injured. The language mandates community involvement in policy for police curriculum, training hours, guidelines for rendering first aid and procedures for independent investigations.

Since 2005, police killings in Washington have risen dramatically but only one officer has ever been criminally charged, according to The Seattle Times. That is the only fatal police case brought forward in a Washington court for over 30 years.

This is in part due to Washington’s 1986 law (RCW 9A.16.040) that says police cannot be criminally liable for employing deadly force if they did so without malice and with a good faith belief that such an act is justifiable under the following permitted-deadly-force items:

  • When obeying competent court judgement
  • When overcoming actual resistance to a legal process, mandate, court order, or discharge of legal duty
  • When arresting or apprehending a person who the officer reasonably believes has committed, attempted to commit, is committing or attempting to commit a felony
  • When preventing escape of an inmate or prisoner
  • When lawfully suppressing a riot if the actor or another participant is armed with a deadly weapon

All of this requires probable cause that a suspect, if not apprehended, poses a threat of serious physical harm to an officer or others.

“Unless you can read minds,” Seattle City Council member Kshama Sawant said, “nothing is going to be proved.”

Johnson, Lyles’ cousin, has been at the forefront of public discussion on behalf of her family.

“I think when this happens, you don’t really have a choice,” Johnson said. “You have to be able to grieve and fight. So, for me, I just want to fight because I’m still angry. I haven’t even processed my cousin’s death, still. It’s too painful to think about it. And I cannot begin to grieve until I feel like there’s some sort of justice that’s going to be brought about so that when I look at her kids, I’m like ‘okay we did something.’ Because right now, with the way things are going, nothing’s gonna happen. She’ll just be another person killed by the Seattle Police. And we will not stand for that, not my family, we’re not.”

Lyles’ four kids, who were split up for a short amount of time following her death, still live with family. But they will never get to meet Lyles’ fifth child who died with her as she got shot.

Sonia Joseph, Joseph-McDade’s mother, shares Johnson’s painful experience. Joseph-McDade was shot multiple times as a police officer felt Joseph-McDade was going to run him over.

“It’s hard trying to explain to the kids,” she said. “They’re scared. They’re scared every single day. ‘When are you coming home?’ They’re scared that you’re not going to come home. Every time they see a police officer, they’re scared and that’s a shame. That’s a shame because that’s not how it should be. Every time we talk about it, it’s hard. It’s reliving it.”

Despite their pain, both Joseph and Johnson said they’re not anti-police. They’re “anti- bad behavior.”

“I believe there are good police officers but they just kinda get lost in the shuffle,” Johnson said. “I think that when I-940 gets passed, it will bring about more accountability than people actually think before they pull the trigger because there’s actual consequences. Right now, there’s no consequences for their actions. So, just like children after they have no consequences, they tend to do whatever they want to do. And that’s what’s happening now.”

As it stands, I-940 has 230,000 signatures but needs 30,000 more to make it onto the ballot. The De-Escalate Washington campaign in charge of I-940, in joint with Not This Time, raised over $8,000. Per their own polling, 75 percent of voters say they would vote yes on I-940. Andre Taylor advocated for this piece of legislation on behalf of his brother, Che Taylor, who was shot by police.

“We didn’t know what to do, where to turn,” he said. “We had to fight and grieve at the same time because they put out this narrative about our family … In this country, officers are allowed to lie. Nobody, nobody, NOBODY wants to be a part of this group [of families whose relatives have been shot by police]. We wouldn’t wish it on our worst enemies.”

Johnson talked of her experience with Lyles’ inquest process, which Johnson calls “flawed.”

“It doesn’t really bring about any change,” she said. “We haven’t even gone through the process, but when I met with the deputy chief prosecuting attorney, he already told me that they’re not going to be prosecuted. So then you think to yourself, ‘what is the point of doing the inquest? You already told me there’s not going to be any accountability so it’s just a formality to save face for you more so than it is for the families.’ The fact that the families have to go up against this army of police attorneys and we don’t even have legal representation most of the time, but you guys are killing us.”

The King County prosecuting attorney’s office denied Johnson’s account of the conversation.

The inquest is set for April.

I-940 has until Dec. 29 to get the number of signatures they need for the November 2018 ballot.

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