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Washington state creates process for public to seek police decertification

A new process in Washington state allows members of the public to seek the decertification of police and corrections officers, which strips away their license to work in law enforcement statewide.

This comes in the wake of a 2021 law, SB 5051, which gave the state's Criminal Justice Training Commission (CJTC) new powers, and expanded the grounds for which officers could lose their badges. The commission, which the law also expanded to include family members of people killed by police, has spent the last several months engaged in rulemaking and implementation of the complaint-handling system.

Previously, decertifying an officer required a cumbersome process, which was rarely employed.

Now people can file a complaint directly with the CJTC online. Executive Director Monica Alexander said, before the new law, “We didn’t take complaints. So this is new for us.”

Alexander said in the past the agency just received completed cases from agencies that investigated their officers for misconduct.

“And we decided whether that met the criteria of decertification," she said. "People did not file complaints with our agency.”

So, members of the public have a new route to lodge a complaint about an officer’s conduct, in addition to the agency where the incident occurred.

And they can seek to remain anonymous, but Alexander said people should keep in mind that anonymous complaints are harder to investigate.

"I understand why people file anonymously, at least I’ve been told they’re uncomfortable and little afraid and don’t want to be known,” she said. “But it’s important if we’re going to see a complaint all the way through, that we have someone we can call back and ask additional questions.”

She said her agency still relies largely on internal investigations by other agencies, but she’s in the process of hiring five new investigators who will look at decertification cases as well. They would focus primarily on complaints about officers in small departments that lack the ability to investigate complaints on their own.

Under the new law, the CJTC must decertify officers who are terminated for the illegal use of force, or who are “found by a court to have made knowingly misleading, deceptive, untrue or fraudulent representations,” according to an analysis of SB 5051.

The agency may also decertify officers who have engaged in a use of force that violated law or policy, and could reasonably be expected to cause injury.

Officers also can be decertified for engaging in conduct involving prejudice or discrimination against a person, and for being affiliated with “extremist organizations.”

Alexander said defining "extremist organizations" has been difficult – and she wants to give officers clear guidance.

“I don’t want people to feel like we’re out to get anyone," she said. "That’s been very important to me.”

Alexander said she’s concerned about officers being affiliated with organizations that disparage certain groups of people, which could harm public trust.

“People want to feel like their police are not biased,” Alexander said, “that their police are coming to them with an open mind and an open heart and they’re going to treat everyone fairly and equally.”

The CJTC has discretion on whether to investigate any complaint. An officer’s certification can be revoked after the commission provides written notice. The officer has 90 days to request a hearing, if desired. An administrative law judge presides over the hearing, and a five-person panel, including two members of law enforcement and three civilians, then votes on whether certification should be revoked. The hearings are open to the public, but the panel’s deliberations are not.

The commission was divided on whether the new decertification law should be applied retroactively, but a majority ultimately voted in favor of that approach.