State Senate approves ‘duty to intervene’ bill

Sen. Dhingra’s bill is in response to demands for police reform

On Feb. 23, the Washington state Senate signed off on a bill that would require law enforcement officers to intervene against wrongdoing by fellow officers. 

Senate Bill 5066, introduced by Sen. Manka Dhingra (D-Redmond), comes in response to demands by activists in Washington state — and across the nation — for meaningful police reforms in the wake of the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis last May and the ensuing protest movement. The bill details a variety of situations in which police officers would be legally obligated to act against fellow officers.

Broadly speaking, the bill breaks down into three parts. It legally requires officers to intervene directly when they see a fellow member of law enforcement using excessive force and to give first aid to people injured because of that force.

The bill also obliges police officers to report wrongdoing by their colleagues to their supervisors and forbids agencies from punishing the reporting officer. Finally, the bill orders Washington’s law enforcement agencies, and other organizations representing officers, to create and implement “duty to intervene” policies by June of next year.

While Washington will be one of the first states to codify the “duty to intervene” into law, if approved, police departments and agencies across the nation have begun adopting the idea into their internal policies.

Dhingra, a former King County deputy prosecutor, said in a press release that the bill will empower good police officers while addressing the concerns of marginalized communities.

“I have had the pleasure of working with many law enforcement officers in my previous career as a senior deputy prosecutor, and the vast majority are committed to doing the right thing,” he said in the release. “They hold themselves up to high ethical standard. This bill is about empowering our good officers to hold their peers to the same high standard. We have been working closely with communities that have been suffering violence at the hands of the police, as well as with law enforcement officers. This bill will help keep communities safe and will provide the tools and support to reinforce a healthy culture in law enforcement.”

Representatives of different police-affiliated groups praised the bill during a public hearing of the Senate Law and Justice Committee, Feb. 1. Algona Police Chief James Schrimpser, who serves as the vice president of the Washington Fraternal Order of Police, summarized his support for the bill with an anecdote: “I walked into the office today and an officer asked me, ‘Chief, isn’t this already a thing?’ I answered, ‘Yes, this is a thing. We’re just codifying it.’ ”

Representatives from the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs and the Washington Council of Police and Sheriffs were more cautious, offering support for the intent of the bill, while requesting a narrower definition of terms such as “wrongdoing” and “excessive force.”

On both committees and the floor of the Senate, Republican lawmakers attempted unsuccessfully to add amendments calling for tighter definitions for words such as “wrongdoing” or “excessive” that appear in the bill, as well as exempting officers from agencies based outside of Washington state. These amendments were voted down by Democrats on the basis that they create loopholes that would allow noncompliance, or add extra burdens on officers trying to stop wrongdoing. 

Dhingra summarized the intent of the bill during a speech on the Senate floor saying.

“We want to make sure our honorable officers have the ability to intervene when they see someone, see a perpetrator, engaging in wrongdoing,” he said. “It should not matter whether that perpetrator is wearing pants or a dress or, unfortunately in some circumstances, a uniform.” 

The bill passed the state Senate on a party-line vote of 28-21. It will now advance to the state House of Representatives for consideration, where it is likely to be approved because of the Democrats’ 51-47 majority.

The bill has until April 11 to be approved in order to become law in 2022. The 2021 legislative session is due to adjourn on April 25.