Without accountability, police reform won’t work. Civil remedies for victims are needed

·3 min read

As the only refugee serving in the Washington State House of Representatives, I marvel at the laws and justice system in the United States — how every person has constitutional rights and is considered innocent until proven guilty. That’s not how things are in other countries, where the state is all-powerful.

I also understand that no country is perfect, and America still struggles with its history of racism and the fight for justice and equal rights. We have much work to do — including addressing how the police interact with our communities of color.

For far too long, Black mothers and fathers have had to give their children The Talk before they started to drive.

For far too long, Native Americans have been pulled over and searched at higher rates.

And for far too long, people of color have attended funerals of those who died too young.

We all know the names: George Floyd, Manuel Ellis, Charleena Lyles, John T. Williams and Tommy Le.

Other names never get headlines. Each represents a family who never truly heals. Each new case of police misconduct causes more rips in the social fabric. This damage isn’t limited to communities of color. When police lose legitimacy, everyone’s public safety is imperiled.

I worked with community members, fellow lawmakers and experts on a piece of this problem. House Bill 1202 allows for civil remedies when a police officer unnecessarily harms someone or violates their rights. The lack of such a remedy jeopardizes justice for victims and implies impunity for violators.

I have great respect for the men and women in uniform risking their lives for the safety of others in America and Washington state. My fellow lawmakers and I are introducing this legislation to strengthen the trust between peace officers and the communities they serve.

Higher standards, independent investigations and civil remedies will help rebuild trust and strengthen the bonds between men and women who wear the badge and those they are sworn to protect.

Last year, we passed police reforms and accountability measures that included making it easier to decertify officers for misconduct. However, in many cases misconduct stems not from a bad apple, but from a lack of training and a culture of impunity.

Auburn Officer Jeff Nelson injured 57 people and killed 3 before he became the first Washington officer charged with murder since the passage of Initiative 940. Despite that record, the Auburn Police Department only disciplined this officer three times for reckless driving, twice for being discourteous and once for destroying property.

Without consequences, accountability means nothing. House Bill 1202 holds accountable the institutions and departments allowing misconduct to fester. New policies, training and clear protocols can provide a safe working environment for peace officers and the public.

There will be opposition to this and other efforts to boost accountability. Some will try to inflame this debate by generating outrage and fear. We cannot let those forces divide us from the common purpose of making every community in Washington a better, safer, kinder place to live.

Thank you to the law enforcement leaders who worked with me in good faith to improve House Bill 1202. We are blessed to live in Washington state, a blessing that I am thankful for every day.

I hope we can work together, as friends and neighbors, to help build trust and prevent needless tragedies.

My-Linh Thai represents the 41st Legislative District in the state House of Representatives. A pharmacist, Thai immigrated to the United States at the age of 15 as a refugee from Vietnam. She is a member of the House Civil Rights & Judiciary Committee.

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