How the State with the Most Regressive Police Accountability Laws in the Country Paved the Way for Nation-wide Police Reform
Reading Time: 10 minutes
By: Lisa M. Hayes
On August 30, 2010, John T. Williams, a Native American woodcarver, was shot four times by Officer Ian Birk of the Seattle Police Department. Williams died at the scene. The shooting was ruled “unjustified” by the police department’s Firearms Review Board. The department’s actions were scrutinized by the United States Department of Justice as a result of the incident. The incident also brought Washington State’s regressive Use of Deadly Force Statute into the world’s view – literally. This shooting put the Seattle PD on the map, and not in a good way.
Washington State anchors the northern corner of the Pacific Northwest which is traditionally known as a haven for liberal politics. However, it’s policing laws regarding deadly force undoubtedly provided more protections to police officers against being charged and prosecuted in deadly force incidents than any other state in the nation. With a few words that came to be known as the “malice clause,” officers had almost certain protections in officer-involved shootings and deaths.
The John T. Williams shooting was not the first. However, it was the most visible and divisive to that date. The case drew national attention and scrutiny. Legal experts weighed in on the shooting and the law. Although the shooting was ruled unjustified, Ian Burke was not charged with a crime. Burke left the Seattle PD and immediately found employment in a police department only a few miles away. Even though the law was widely questioned or condemned after the John T. Williams case no one addressed it at the time.
What seemed clear after the John T. Williams shooting was it would be almost, if not completely impossible to charge an officer with a crime in the event of an unjustified use of deadly force by a police officer. The very specific language in the statutes of Washington State provided an almost perfect defense to any use of deadly force crime committed by a Law Enforcement Officer.
Fast forward to 2015. Several very high profile police shootings were getting coverage all across the country. Use of deadly force and police accountability were topics of conversation around dinner tables all over the nation.
The shooting of Antonio Zambrano-Montes occurred on February 10, 2015, in Pasco, Washington. Zambrano, a 35-year-old man originally from Michoacán, Mexico, was shot and killed by three police officers after allegedly throwing rocks at cars and police officers.
Antonio Zambrano-Montes had a history of mental health issues. He was fleeing from the police on foot when he was shot. Although his hands were not in the air at the time of his fatal shooting, they were outstretched at his side, hands open, as if he was trying to demonstrate he was unarmed.
Pasco, Washington with a large Hispanic community erupted in protest for a few days after the Antonio Zambrano-Montes shooting. At first, it appeared Pasco would become Washington State’s version of Ferguson, Missouri. However, protest efforts in Hispanic and migrant communities are easy to put down. Protest suppression efforts including threats of immigration challenges were very efficient.
In April of 2015, Officers David Butts and Ryan Hamilton killed 37-year-old Daniel Isaac Covarrubias after he reportedly pointed a cellphone at the officers as if it were a gun.
Daniel Covarrubias had just been released from an emergency room less than an hour before the shooting. He was confused and in crisis. He entered a lumberyard, a place he’d gone to gather his thoughts before. When an employee at the lumberyard called 911, they reported the man who was trespassing needed help. Moments after officers arrived, Daniel Covarrubias was dead. He died because he picked up his cell phone.
In late May 2015, two brothers, Andre Thompson and Bryson Chaplin, were shot by an Olympia police officer at almost point blank range. The officer claimed they threatened him with their skateboards. Given the national trends, it was no surprise the young men were black, and the officer was white. What was unusual in this case was both men lived. One brother, Bryson Chaplin, was left paralyzed.
Olympia, Washington, maybe the most liberal city in the state erupted in protests that lasted for months, pitting the protesters against the police and anarchists against white supremacy groups. Most people in Olympia didn’t even know white supremacist groups existed locally until they crawled out of the woodwork to “support and protect” the police.
More than two years later, both men who were shot by the white police officer were sentenced and did jail time for assaulting the white officer with literally no evidence to support the officer’s claims other than his own testimony.
These two shootings happened approximately 25 miles from each other in a period of only days. Lakewood, Washington, where Daniel was shot is a very different community than Olympia. Lakewood is much more conservative, home to a lot of military personnel stationed nearby. Daniel Covarrubias’s death sparked local community outrage. However, the combination of the two incidents so close geographically and in such a short timeframe started the momentum for a movement that would take several months to fully be birthed.
After the Washington State shootings in the Spring of 2015, there seemed to be a rash of high profile police shootings in Washington State and around the nation. It seemed like the rate of police shootings was drastically escalating. Statistics vary depending on which study you look at as to whether or not that was true. Many studies indicate there has been no increase in police violence. Most believe that social media and the easy availability of cellphone camera footage has created public more awareness. Additionally, there have been improvements in data collection that help to paint a more accurate picture of the problem.
The fact is, police shootings are much more common than most people are aware and always have been. However, as the mood of the nation changed, some stories emerged as cases that got attention locally and nationally. Other’s didn’t, and there is often no obvious reason when a police shooting gets little or no publicity. In Washington State, many did though, and the mood was growing increasingly stormy as the relationship between the public in Washington and the police strained. That strain was about to get substantively worse.
Just before midnight on January 28, 2016, a Tacoma, Washington police officer fatally shot Puyallup tribal member Jacqueline Salyers. Salyers, 33, was in the driver’s seat of a parked car. Kenneth Wright, Jr., who is not a tribal member, was in the passenger seat. Jacqueline Salyers was a mother of two girls and two boys. She died at the scene.
According to Tacoma Police Department spokesperson Loretta Cool, officers were in the area seeking Wright for outstanding felony warrants involving robbery, firearms, and drugs. Days earlier Salyers family had told police Jackie was a victim of domestic violence. They believed she was potentially being held by Wright against her will, or threatened that her family might be harmed if she left.
Officers claimed they shot Jackie Salyers as she drove her car towards them. However, physical evidence at the scene did not support that version of events. After Saylers was shot, Wright just got out of the car and walked away from the scene even though he was the one the police were searching for. He was not detained for several days.
Native Americans are more likely to be shot by the police than any other demographic in the U.S. per capita. Salyers family, supported by Puyallup Tribe leadership were convinced almost immediately the incident was not being adequately or honestly investigated. They determined early on; they’d have to get justice for Jackie. In this case, the very police department which employed the officers involved in the shooting investigated the incident. They cleared their own officers without question.
Again, only three weeks later, Washington had another very high profile shooting. On February 21, white officers in the North Precinct of Seattle shot and killed Che Taylor. Again, Che Taylor was a black man shot by white officers.
According to reports, officers from the North Precinct were investigating a suspicious car when officers spotted Taylor, who police characterized as “a known felon who was clearly armed.”
According to SPD, an arrest team then approached the vehicle to take Taylor into custody. Officers ordered Taylor to show his hands and get on the ground. Officials claim that Taylor did not follow the officers’ commands, and instead leaned into his car. At this point, SPD claims that Taylor was either reaching for a gun or had a gun within reach causing officers to fire their weapons at him.
However, the dashcam video has stirred up more questions. The video appears to show that Taylor had his hands on the roof of the car, complying with the officers’ commands to put his hands up and to get on the ground. Additionally, it was later revealed the gun police claimed Taylor was reaching for had actually belonged to a former King County Sheriff.
Che Taylor’s brother, Andre Taylor moved his family from California to Washington, founding a group called “Not this Time” and hit the ground running on day one to get justice for his brother.
At this point, the dream team existed but hadn’t yet formed.
When a family loses someone to a violent act, once the shock wears off, almost all of them want justice for their lost loved one. Many decide to fight for that justice themselves. The two things all of these families had in common were clear. Their loved ones were killed by the police in questionable circumstances, and those officers were not held accountable. Secondly, each of these families realized quickly, under Washington State law as it existed, there would be no justice. It wasn’t possible.
Police law is almost exclusively legislated. This means the public never has input into the laws which often have more impact on citizens personally than any other statutes in the books.
Policing laws are legislated at the state level. They vary widely from state to state. In 2016 when many state legislatures across the country were trying to deal with a crisis of community confidence in police accountability, citizens of Washington State decided to do it differently. They realized at the alarming rate of police shootings they couldn’t wait for the legislators to take action on a statute that had been in the books unchallenged since 1986.
In June of 2016, I-873 was born. It was the first initiative in history that attempted to put police accountability laws in the hands of the people at the state level. The people who lead the effort were the people in Washington State who’d been most affected by police brutality. The family members allied to change the law that protected the officers who’d killed their loved ones.
Making history is not easy. This was the first time most of the people working on the initiative had ever been actively involved in politics. It’s an often unforgiving and painstaking process. The alliance was not always smooth. The I-873 campaign was plagued by internal stresses and external pressures from police organizations. At times disagreements between one of the family groups and Washington for Good Policing, the campaign organization itself, boiled over publicly.
The grassroots organization running on barebones finances failed to meet the very high bar requirement for signatures. The campaign couldn’t afford paid signature gatherers. In Washington State, it’s almost impossible to meet the signature requirement without them. Change comes with a very high price tag. This is why change comes painfully slow for disadvantaged groups.
However, the campaign changed the dialog and brought the issue to thousands of people on the street during signature gathering who previously hadn’t understood the laws. Washington’s regressive laws had once been the problem of a handful of families or communities. The I-873 campaign brought awareness to the voting public of the state and drove a conversation that made police accountability a statewide priority.
Even after failing to get the signatures, the first campaign took the fight to the legislature in 2017 and almost did the impossible. Growing support from community groups almost got legislation passed. However, before the legislative session in 2017 ended, community groups failed to agree on language that could be passed in a republican/democratic split legislature.
It was clear, even after defeat, this fight wasn’t over. The legislature was engaged in making a change. Law enforcement organizations seemed ready to negotiate. Most importantly though, those families were not done, and they weren’t alone. The families vowed from the beginning they wouldn’t go away until the law was changed. They meant what they said.
In the Spring of 2017, De-escalate Washington was formed. The Political Action Committee was dedicated to moving the process forward. Armed with what was learned during the last campaign and legislative session, De-escalate WA with family members at the helm, the support of community groups and a strong legal team, crafted a new initiative.
While the statutory language regarding use of force wasn’t quite as ambitious, the new initiative dramatically improved the regressive statute making it possible to charge officers in illegal use of deadly force incidents. Additionally, I-940 contained statewide requirements for additional training for police around things like mental illness and de-escalation.
Well funded by community members, advocacy groups, and especially the Puyallup tribe, De-escalate WA was able to hire paid signature gatherers. They were easily able to gather significantly more than the required amount of signatures to move the initiative to the ballot. It wasn’t just the families of the slain anymore. The people of Washington State were speaking loud and clear. It was time for a big change.
A few weeks before submitting the signatures, something happened in Washington State many had hoped for. The November elections turned the Washington State legislature solid blue. With a Democratically controlled and Senate, and a Democratic Governor, things were different.
The Washington State initiative process allows for an option where the legislature can make the initiative law before putting it on the ballot. After weeks of negotiation House, Bill 3003 was passed by the House and Senate after law enforcement groups and backers of I-940 reached a compromise deal. Gov. Jay Inslee signed it into law immediately.
After more than two years of fighting it was over. More importantly, it was a win, for the families, and the people of Washington State.
The shootings haven’t stopped just because the law was challenged. In June of 2017 another shooting in Washington State garnered national attention when Seattle police shot and killed a 30-year-old Charleena Lyles. Police removed her three children from the home after the shooting by carrying them out passed their mother’s dead body. Charleena had called the Seattle PD to report what she thought was a robbery. They claimed she lunged at them with a knife.
Literally dozens of other Officer involved shooting deaths have occurred in Washington between 2015 and now. Most get little more than a couple of paragraphs worth of coverage in the local paper. However, as the families of the shooting victims became better organized more and more of the stories started getting coverage and the cases garnered more public scrutiny. Working together families were able to support each other and their respective cases.
Some people choose activism. For others activism picks them. None of these families chose this fight. However, in their grief, they rose to the battle anyway. You might call them accidental activists. Accidental activists are usually the most potent kind.
Mothers, Marilyn Covarrubias, Lisa Salyers, and Crystal Chaplin didn’t know they would one day take on the most one of the most powerful forces in any state, the police lobby and win.
Uncle James Rideout and cousin Chester Earl didn’t plan on having to support their loved-one through an unimaginable loss and run one of the most powerful advocacy organizations in the state, Justice for Jackie.
Auntie Sylvia Sabon and fiance Noel Parish didn’t know they’d have to put their lives on hold for months or years, just to get the stories of their loved ones lost to police violence even heard.
Sisters Lana Covarrubias and Jasmine Chaplin didn’t sign up to raise their children and show up for countless rallies and events on behalf of their dead or injured brothers, but they did.
Brother, Andre Taylor didn’t intend to move his family to a new state for a revolution, but his organization Not this Time was pivotal in getting this done. Brother of John T. Williams, Rick Williams, gave up his life entirely for years to ensure what his family went through wouldn’t happen to any others.
These people and many, many more, whose names no one will ever hear put their lives on hold to protect other people’s families. Almost everyone said they’d fail. Almost everyone was wrong.
Heroes come in unexpected forms. This group of unexpected heroes did something that had never been done before. They put police accountability laws in the hands of the people and won. They laid down a map for other states to do the same.
Nothing will bring their families back. However, they took their power back and empowered not just the people of Washington State, but the entire nation in the process.