Interview With Washington State Rep. Jesse Johnson

14 mins read

The Democratic Caucus in the Washington State House and Senate declared police reform to be one of its top priorities for the 2021 legislative session. Rep. Jesse Johnson (LD 30) has been one of the key players in drafting and enacting much of that legislation, so Stephan Cox, host of the Washington State Indivisible Podcast, sat down with Rep. Johnson at the midpoint of this year’s session to talk about what’s been accomplished—and what hasn’t.

Stephan Cox: As a member of the Democratic Caucus Policing Policy Leadership Team, you were instrumental in determining which police reform legislation to put forth this year. Can you talk a little bit about that process?

Rep. Jesse Johnson: Last year, obviously, after the murder of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor and here locally with Manny Ellis, there was a call to action from the community to reform the system. Although communities of color have been demanding that we look at this for decades, we finally had a call from the majority to examine how we can reform our system. Our police leadership team really put the ball in the hands of the community to do these bills. Typically law enforcement agencies work with legislators to reform law enforcement, but we wanted this to be entirely community-led. So in the past six, seven, eight months we’ve been working directly with the community on these bills. The bills were written directly in partnership with the community. I think that’s unique because it’s just a unique year given what’s happened in 2020. That’s really how I approached it: making sure that families were at the center of the bills and that their lived experiences would be elevated.

But if you see something wrong—wrong is wrong—I think that law enforcement’s highest value is preserving and protecting human life. Here we have actual policy and a law that says that you have to intervene when you see something wrong. I think this is a big shift towards social justice in our communities.

Rep. Jesse Johnson

SC: Let’s talk about two of your bills that have advanced to the Senate. The first is HB 1054. This is aimed at restricting police tactics. Which tactics specifically does it restrict?

JJ: 1054 will ban chokeholds and neck restraints. Law enforcement will not be allowed to train in or use these tactics. The same is true for no-knock warrants. These have a history that’s rooted in racism and the war on drugs, and is disproportionately used against people of color. Also it puts law enforcement officers themselves in harm’s way, so no-knock warrants will be permanently removed. It will also restrict tear gas. Tear gas will only be able to be used when there’s a barricaded suspect or a hostage, or in our department of corrections [DOC] facilities if there’s a riot, because DOC officers do not have guns in prisons. We want to make sure that that tactic is available but tear gas will no longer be allowed at protests in the streets like we saw last summer in Seattle. The bill will also ban certain military equipment like grenades and drones and Mind-Resistant Ambush Protected vehicles [MRAPs] and some of this really big and scary-looking military equipment that is kind of excessive for our community. And then, finally, it will restrict shooting at moving vehicles and vehicular pursuits. Vehicular pursuits are obviously very controversial. A lot of times that’s how our officers are able to catch folks that are involved in DUIs and so we’re going to allow for vehicular pursuits for DUI cases or really terrible cases, but not for things like minor possession of drugs where vehicular pursuit can harm innocent bystanders. It’s not worth it for the officer to pursue that individual. That’s what 1054 will do.

SC: It’s a tremendous bill and it covers so much ground. I also want to talk about 1310. This restricts use of force and prioritizes de-escalation. I-940 passed a couple of years ago with a lot of the same intent, and I think people have been very disappointed at how it’s come up short. In what ways will 1310 go further?

JJ: 1310 will actually finally create a statewide standard on use of force that is uniform across our state. Right now you can go to certain jurisdictions and there are different use of force standards in different jurisdictions. I-940 was supposed to create guardrails for our officers and our departments. But 1310 will restrict use of force in a lot of different ways. First, it will restrict use of force in general so that less lethal alternatives have to be exhausted when available and when appropriate before any use of force can proceed. Then it will also implement a stronger deadly force statute and say that deadly force is narrowed to an imminent threat of serious physical injury or death. Deadly force right now is really broad and so we want to make sure that that’s narrowed. 1310 is going to really start to begin the process of rebuilding trust.

SC: These two bills have made it out of the House; they’re in the Senate. How do you see their chances of advancing and getting to the governor’s desk?

JJ: I think they’re good. Obviously, we still have some roadblocks. The Senate is a different animal than the House. There are more conservative members and so we want to make sure that we’re addressing that. But I think that the leadership that Senators Jamie Pedersen and Manka Dhingra have brought has been great. We’ll work with them and get it to the finish line.

SC: There are two bills of theirs that I would love to discuss. One of them is SB 5051, this is Senator Pedersen’s bill. This is the decertification bill, which would disallow cops that have been fired for cause from getting rehired in other jurisdictions. For people who may not know, how common a problem is that?

JJ: One of the things I’ve learned from groups like the ACLU and others is that cops jump jurisdictions all the time. It’s like it’s one of the biggest issues we have. The officer that killed Jesse Sarey in Auburn had been disciplined 13 times in the past and he was not decertified. This tells you right there that officers can jump jurisdictions and are able to get a job because there’s a shortage of police officers and recruitment and retention is very difficult. But we want to make sure that our officers are the best there can be out in our communities. It’s that important because human life is that important. I think this bill is really a cornerstone piece of this legislation package.

SC: It really is a matter of life and death, as you say. Senator Dhingra’s bill, SB 5066, would require officers to intervene when they see a fellow officer using excessive force. I don’t think I have to put too fine a point on this, considering what we saw with George Floyd, but I’m just wondering your thoughts generally on the importance of this bill here in Washington.

JJ: It’s very important. It gets at the police culture of standing up for your fellow officer in uniform. But if you see something wrong—wrong is wrong—I think that law enforcement’s highest value is preserving and protecting human life. Here we have actual policy and a law that says that you have to intervene when you see something wrong. I think this is a big shift towards social justice in our communities.

SC: There are a number of bills that came up short, and I want to get your thoughts on a couple. One of them was Representative My-Linh Thai’s bill, 1202, that would challenge qualified immunity. Qualified immunity is, roughly put, the reason why officers who kill are almost never convicted. And then your bill, HB 1203, had to do with establishing community oversight boards to hold police accountable. Legislating police accountability often proves to be very, very difficult. Why do you think that is?

JJ: First of all, it’s a very honorable profession and I think they take a lot of honor and pride in the work that they do, which they should. But I also think there’s a stigma that if you are making changes then someone’s done something wrong. So when we’re doing these statewide policies, officers are often saying, “We’ve only had one really bad case in this department,” or “This department’s done really well. We’re gold standard.” And I think the problem is that we’re trying to be proactive: Just because one department’s doing really well doesn’t mean they all are, so we’re putting protections in place so that people are treated the same no matter what city they’re in. That’s really important and very difficult. It’s part of the problem we run into.

SC: I think community members had very high expectations for police reform in all the areas you mentioned, especially since there are fairly comfortable Democratic majorities in each chamber. I’m wondering how you personally assess where things stand right now on police accountability legislation.

JJ: I would say that in many ways we overachieved, because coming into the session we had 13 priority bills—eight in the House and five in the Senate—and five priority bills directly from the community, from the Washington Coalition on Police Accountability, and from families. Four of those five direct priority bills from the community are still in play to get to the governor’s desk: 5051 on decertification; 1267 on independent investigations; 1054 on police tactics; and 1310 on use of force. The only one of the priority bills that didn’t get through was 1202 on the civic cause of action, qualified immunity. But four of the top five priority bills and eleven of the thirteen bills overall in the police space made it forward. That’s really, really good for a very controversial year, this politicized year that we’ve had. And it’s not over. We still have a lot of work to do moving forward, but I think this year has been probably the biggest shift in police reform we’ve seen in our state.

SC: Representative Jesse Johnson, it is always a pleasure. Thank you so much.

DemCast is an advocacy-based 501(c)4 nonprofit. We have made the decision to build a media site free of outside influence. There are no ads. We do not get paid for clicks. If you appreciate our content, please consider a small monthly donation.

Stephan Cox is a public radio and broadcasting veteran who has helmed shows for PRI, and KUSF, and has reported for NPR. He is the host of the Washington State Indivisible Podcast.

Cynthia Eller is a writer based in Los Angeles. She's really eager for term limits in Congress and ditching the filibuster.

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