The Courage to Ask Uncomfortable Questions


As you might expect, those of intimately involved in the I-873 campaign have spent a lot of time in meetings, behind closed doors, talking about policing laws. Most of those conversations are informative, useful, and productive. However, there is always an invisible line in the room you don't ever want to go near, let alone cross.

The last thing you ever want to do is say something that makes you sound anti-police. Being anti-police is instantly perceived as bad. In most rooms, coming off as anti-police makes you instantly not credible.

For the record, we are not anti-police. We respect law enforcement. We firmly believe policing reform makes law enforcement officers safer for a number of reasons. We are pro- accountability. We are pro-community.

However, there is a tendency for some people to try to misidentify anyone who questions the police or policing laws as anti-law enforcement as a way of shutting conversations down. They know there is a stigma, and they work it elegantly. They have a well-practiced list of statements or questions that immediately create a pause or a full stop in a conversation.

Here are five things that come up regularly in conversations about I-873 and policing laws in general.

1. “By changing this law, you might force officers to hesitate." If you want to hear a collective gasp of horror in a room, the suggestion that an officer might hesitate will do it every time.

There is an unspoken assertion that by asking an officer to hesitate you are putting a gun to his or her head. Officer's lives will be at risk.

Is that true? Undoubtedly in occasional circumstances, it could be. However, is universally accurate? That's worth questioning.

Are there circumstances where hesitating might save lives?
Are there instances when a two or three-second delay is in the best interests of public safety?

These aren't easy questions, but they are questions we should be asking. Asking them does not make you anti-police.

2. ”By taking out the phrase, 'and in a good faith belief', you are potentially creating situations where officers would be scrutinized, second-guessed, in hindsight." That one gets dropped in conversations like it's a bad thing. Maybe we should question that.

If someone has died in a deadly force incident, shouldn't we be second-guessing in hindsight?? Shouldn't there be scrutiny?

One prosecutor actually suggested that if these things went to court, that scrutiny would result in dueling expert witnesses. Shouldn't we be hearing expert testimony in these cases?

Suggesting that an officer be subject to scrutiny when someone is killed in the line of duty is not anti-police.

3. ”Well, yes, now our state is at the lowest end of the scale in police accountability law. However, if we remove malice AND in a good faith belief, we would be at the higher end of that scale nationally."

For the record, we don't believe that I-873 would put Washington at a higher than average place in comparison with other state laws.

However, what if it were true? Is that a bad thing?

This is liberal Washington State in the Pacific Northwest. At a time in our nation's history when many states are reforming their policing laws, would it be a bad thing to have Washington leading the way on that reform?

Is having laws that require higher than average police accountability necessarily a bad thing? That's a question worth asking, and asking it is not anti-police.

4. ”Should police be held to the same standard for use of force as civilians?"

That question is usually asked where the answer is obviously presumed to be no. There is a narrative in the US where it's a given that law enforcement should have extra protections built into the law because of the dangerous nature of their job where they have to make split-second decisions.

However, that is a very complicated question, and the answers aren't that obvious to everyone. A lot of countries deal with these nuances in the law very differently than we do. So, asking that question might be relevant, and the discussions might yield valuable insights.

Most states in the US operate on the “reasonable judgment” standard. Most countries in Europe only allow deadly force when “absolutely necessary”. That is very similar to civilian standards. It may not be as cut and dry as it looks at first glance. Exploring that question is not anti-police.

5. “Most cops are good people doing good work. It’s just a few bad apples.”
However, that's not a lot of comfort to the people and families of victims of police brutality. A bad apple with a badge and a gun is a serious problem with life-threatening consequences. Bad cops shouldn't be carefully cushioned in the reputations of good ones. Bad cops kill. Bad apples might ruin a bushel of produce. There is a difference.

Officers tasked with upholding the law, shouldn't be exempt. Pointing that out does not diminish the work and commitment of the good law enforcement officers. Raising the issue is not anti- police.

A lot of conversations or even arguments will need to be had. However, even the most provocative questions can unfold deeper understandings. Asking provocative and nuanced questions is not anti-police.

As citizens, there are very few laws that have a greater impact individually than policing laws do. Traditionally in the U.S. these laws are legislated. They are created by and defended by elected lawmakers.

In Washington State, we are in the process of doing something uniquely different by putting those laws in the hands of the people. These laws are complicated. For years lawmakers and law enforcement has banked on the fact that they are too complicated for citizens to take on. In our state, we are proving them wrong. The people have a right, if not a duty to question everything regarding public safety.

Engaging in a respectful dialogue, even when that conversation is uncomfortable is not anti- police. 


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  • commented 2016-08-16 14:08:48 -0700
    I have a neighbor that is a prosecutor in King County and another parent (kid on same soccer team) I know who is the Deputy Prosecutor for King County. I’m working to have these conversations with them and I appreciate the tone of this post. It will help me pose my questions in a respectful way. Thanks!