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Proposal allows deadly force cases to be handled by Attorney General's office

Following the concerns over police brutality in 2020, Gov. Jay Inslee directed the Attorney General’s office to form an Office of Independent Investigations to take on cases of death by law enforcement officers.

Now Rep. Monica Stonier, D-Vancouver, is building on that effort with HB 1579, which gives the Attorney General’s Office authority to handle the prosecution of police officers in addition to ordering investigations.

The primary goal is to avoid conflicts of interest at the county prosecutor level. Local prosecutors often have close connections to law enforcement agencies and their employees, and, if conflicts are found, the Attorney General’s office can step in.

“Transparency and process is really important for families to heal and for law enforcement officers to have confidence in that decision so it's not a question that is hanging over them as they leave the room after that decision,” Stonier said.

Many Republicans oppose the bill, claiming it discounts the credibility of county prosecutors. They also argue the bill is unconstitutional, and conflicts are too infrequent to create a budget for the program.

“I don’t think it sends the right message that we don’t believe our county prosecutors can be impartial in prosecuting these cases,” said Rep. Chris Corry, R-Yakima. “When we look at the numbers, they are so low, which not only speaks to the actions of our first responders, our police officers, but also the county prosecutors in handling these appropriately.”

In response to Republican concerns, spending for the bill was trimmed to $9 million for the years 2024-2027.

Twenty-three people were killed in Washington State by police officers in 2023, according to Mapping Police Violence, a non-profit research group founded in 2013. It is not clear how many cases might have conflicts and be forwarded to the Attorney General’s office.

Stonier said constitutional worries by Republicans are addressed by a provision that says if no conflict of interest is found, county prosecutors can still handle the case.

The Washington Coalition for Police Accountability as well as families of victims of police violence strongly support the bill.

“A young man was killed at the hands of law enforcement in Vancouver, just blocks from my house,” Stonier said. “The county prosecutor at the time came to me and said: ‘I think there could be a conflict of interest here, and prosecutors would be pressured by their local law enforcement.’ I took that to heart, the fact that a county prosecutor is saying ‘we need to look more closely at who is doing these cases.’”

Stonier also said small counties often choose not to handle these cases and transfer them to larger counties that have broader expertise and more resources.

“Unfortunately, what that means is there is not an opportunity for the state to help spread the cost, and that has huge implications for a county budget,” Stonier said.