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Does Washington state need an independent prosecutor to charge police with misusing deadly force?

caption: Patrol cars and ambulances are shown at the intersection of Third Avenue and Pine Street on Wednesday, Jan. 22, 2020.
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Patrol cars and ambulances are shown at the intersection of Third Avenue and Pine Street on Wednesday, Jan. 22, 2020.
KUOW Photo/Megan Farmer

This year, a proposal to create a new, independent prosecutor at the state level is advancing in the Washington Legislature. House Bill 1579 would establish a unit within the Attorney General’s office to pursue charges against police officers accused of misusing deadly force.

The measure follows the Legislature’s creation three years ago of an Office of Independent Investigations, which is now preparing to investigate deadly force encounters statewide. The independent prosecutor would consider cases referred by that agency.

Tacoma City Councilmember Jamika Scott, a supporter of the bill, told the Senate Law and Justice Committee Thursday that she’s worried local prosecutors will not pursue these investigations.

“Without the option of an independent office to review these cases and make a prosecutorial decision, the work you all did to create the [Office of Independent Investigations] is greatly diminished and the time, work, and resources spent to create that office will not result in the improvements to the system that the community has expected,” Scott said.

RELATED: Washington state revamps police deadly force investigations

Opponents of the bill say a new statewide prosecutor is not needed.

“We take significant issue with the idea of spending $12 million to hire two dozen people whose sole job it is to charge police officers with murder,” said James McMahan, policy director for the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs. “We have seen and we have every confidence that prosecutors will continue to charge every person, especially police officers, if they are found to commit crimes.”

Thurston County Prosecutor Jon Tunheim said local prosecutors oppose the current bill as an overreach by the Legislature. But he said prosecutors would welcome the option of a statewide prosecutor for certain cases.

“It gives us a place to go if in fact we do have a concern about a conflict of interest, or even about resources,” he said.

Many family members of people killed by police support the bill. They say local prosecutors have an inherent conflict of interest because they work closely with law enforcement.

“We saw in the Manny Ellis trial that the criminal legal system did not crumble with an independent prosecutor," Katrina Johnson, a cousin of Charleena Lyles, who was killed in an encounter with Seattle police in 2017, told lawmakers. Johnson served on the governor’s task force that recommended the new office.

RELATED: Charleena Lyles' family reels after inquest jury finds Seattle cops justified in her shooting death

The Attorney General’s office brought charges against the three police officers accused of murder and manslaughter in Ellis’ death. A jury acquitted the officers Matthew Collins, Christopher Burbank, and Timothy Rankine on all charges in December.

“I know this is less about policy and more about ceding power," Johnson said. "And we all must remember that absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

RELATED: DOJ now reviewing case against Tacoma PD officers acquitted in Manny Ellis' death

James McDevitt, the former U.S. Attorney for Eastern Washington under presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, spoke in opposition to the bill.

“HB 1579 presumes that the prosecutor is going to be acting contrary to his or her ethical obligations and it presumes a conflict of interest which I think is absolutely incorrect,” McDevitt said.

He also called the proposal unnecessary, “since that function can and has already been performed by the U.S. Attorney."

McDevitt said that during his tenure as a U.S. Attorney, “My office prosecuted a police officer for basically a death in custody, a deprivation of civil rights, resulting in a federal prison sentence.”

In fatal police encounters referred for criminal charges, the bill gives jurisdiction to both the local prosecutor and the new statewide prosecutor. If both file similar charges, a superior court judge must “determine whose prosecution will best promote the interests of justice,” according to the bill report.

“The court must prioritize the public's interest in ensuring a fair and impartial prosecution and trial that is free from bias, prejudice, or conflict of interest," the report said. "A county prosecuting attorney must also overcome a presumption that the prosecuting attorney has an inherent conflict of interest.”

The measure is currently scheduled for a committee vote on Tuesday.

According to the Washington Coalition for Police Accountability, a handful of other states, including Connecticut, have taken steps to establish an independent prosecutor or eliminate conflicts of interest when pursuing criminal cases involving police officers.

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