Grace Deng

(Washington State Examiner) Carlos Hunter was killed by police officers who tased him and shot him 16 times during a 2019 traffic stop for a search warrant in Vancouver, Washington. A Clark County prosecutor determined that the police acted lawfully. But a lawsuit Hunter’s family filed last year describes a chaotic scene in the moments that led up to his death.

Officers crowded around Hunter’s car, gave conflicting commands and smashed his passenger-side window, the suit says. A dispatch report indicates police went from tasing Hunter to shooting him in about 70 seconds. Officers said he reached for a gun, but the lawsuit says he never grabbed it and that Hunter was still wearing his seatbelt when officers shot him.

Just a year before Hunter’s death, in 2018, Washington voters approved a sweeping police reform ballot measure that was meant to help prevent situations like this. A key part of the measure — Initiative 940 — was 200 hours of mandated mental health and deescalation training for officers.

The state’s law enforcement leaders say the mental health and deescalation program has been one of the success stories of I-940. They report nearly universally positive feedback and say the program helps officers make decisions that are less likely to end in tragedy.

Critics, however, question whether departments are moving aggressively enough to get officers through the program. And the Criminal Justice Training Commission’s deputy director, Jerrell Wills, believes the state isn’t on track to train Washington’s entire police force by 2028, the deadline set by the Legislature.

July report by the state Criminal Justice Training Commission found that only 28% of the state’s roughly 11,000 officers have gone through the training. The report lists staffing challenges, travel costs and “training apprehension” as barriers to getting more officers through the training.

“We’re doing all we can,” Wills said.

But for family members mourning loved ones killed by police, like Nickeia Hunter, Carlos Hunter’s sister, the pace signifies a different problem with police departments in Washington and their efforts to limit use-of-force incidents.

“They don’t care,” Hunter said.

Short-staffed?

Washington has the lowest number of police officers per capita in the country, the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs noted recently. Departments in the state are grappling with an exodus of officers and difficulties recruiting. The staff shortage means less time for training, said the association’s executive director, Steve Strachan.

“Someone has to answer the 911 call,” he said.

But police accountability advocate Leslie Cushman pointed to research that suggests the way agencies think about staffing levels is outdated and not representative of how many officers agencies need.

Cushman believes police agencies should focus on the quality of officers, not the quantity — and that police often aren’t spending their time responding to serious crimes. Only about 1.3% of all calls made to the Seattle Police Department in 2020 were for violent crimes.

David Owens, a University of Washington law professor who specializes in civil rights and police issues, said Strachan’s excuse “seems kind of silly.”

“We have the most over-policed civilization in the world,” Owens said. “It seems to me the answer is always just, ‘We need more police. We need more, we need more, we need more.’ But why? Are we using all of them effectively?”

‘Training apprehension’

Strachan and Wills said officers and command staff tend to have generally positive views on the deescalation and mental health training once they take it. “We get rave reviews,” Wills said.

But Wills said many later-career officers see the 2028 deadline and believe they don’t have to attend because they plan to retire before then.

Other officers want to put off the training because they don’t want to go through the same program multiple times before 2028. The law calls for officers to renew the training certification every three years. Wills said it will not be repetitive because the commission creates a new version on three-year cycles.

State Rep. Roger Goodman, D-Kirkland, who chairs the House Public Safety Committee, said he’s not sure what else the state can do to get officers through the program faster.

“The CJTC can’t really force the local police agencies to do the training. It’s on their own schedule, on their own time,” he said.

“We’ve provided plenty of funding. It’s just that the local agencies need to step up,” Goodman added.

A minimum, not a maximum

Police accountability advocates say it shouldn’t take 10 years from the time I-940 passed to move officers through the deescalation and mental health training and that agencies should be looking for ways to not just meet, but to exceed the new requirements.

“If the culture had changed and they were more accepting of deescalation, mental health treatment, things like that, you would see this be implemented and treated as a baseline — as a minimum standard, not a maximum. We don’t have that,” Owens, the UW professor, said.

Nickeia Hunter, now vice president of the Vancouver branch of the NAACP, sees a need for stronger penalties for officer infractions and backs programs that involve sending mental health professionals out in response to more emergency calls.

Hunter also questions how far the state’s laws around deescalation and mental health training will go toward eliminating problems with police violence.

“All the trainings in the world can’t undo a culture,” Hunter said. Three years after the murder of George Floyd sparked nationwide protests against police brutality, Hunter said she feels like “we’re back to pretending things are fine.”

Her family’s lawsuit over the police shooting that killed her brother is ongoing. “Our loved ones are still out here dying,” Hunter said. “My niece will never know my brother.”

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