In Support of House Bill 2907 – Testimony on Behalf of Interfaith Works

February 3, 2016
Selena Kilmoyer, Board of Directors, Interfaith Works

Thank you Mr. Chair and members of the committee for the opportunity to speak today on House Bill 2907. My name is Selena Kilmoyer, and I am on the Board of Interfaith Works, a Thurston County non-profit working on homelessness, justice issues, and ways to build a stronger and more loving community.

Interfaith Works strongly supports passage of House Bill 2907 and thanks the sponsor and co-sponsors for bringing it forward this year so soon after the tragic shooting right here in Olympia of two unarmed young black men last May.

As an organization composed of faith communities in Thurston County, we are called to do all we can to help reduce violence and build a just society. Love, compassion, justice and nonviolence are foundational principles of all religions across the globe. We recognize in one another, and indeed in all of creation, the spirit of the divine, however one defines it and the need, therefore, to protect life. As people of faith, we believe we are called to ACT on our principles of love and justice. Supporting HB 2907 is a small act we take in partnership with many others in hopes of a better day. If one person’s life is spared because of the changes proposed in 2907 to Washington’s unjust law, then it is worth it.

Police officers often do heroic work, and of course they need leeway for split-second decision making in dangerous situations. But deadly force has to be clearly necessary to be justified. It should be the last resort, not the first.

Washington’s current law on police use of deadly force, with its standard of malice, is grossly unjust, especially to people who an officer perceives as threatening because they are different from him or her.

Police officers in the United States are taught that they can use deadly force if they reasonably believe an individual poses a grave, imminent danger to themselves or others. Superficially, this “reasonableness” rule looks unobjectionable.

But racial bias can affect what seems reasonable. Individuals of all races in America perceive black people as more aggressive and dangerous than white people. Studies show that black people are seen as being physically stronger and less prone to feeling pain than people of other races, and black children are often perceived to be older than they are. When faced with an armed black target, shooters are both more likely to shoot and quicker to shoot than they are when faced with an armed white target.

These biases can affect the way we think, judge and act. As a result, force that may seem unreasonable if used against a white person may seem perfectly “reasonable” when used against a black person.

An analysis of F.B.I. data from 2010 to 2012 concluded that the police killed black men ages 15 to 19 at a rate 21 times greater than the statistic for white men the same age. Department of Justice numbers indicate that a black person is about four times more likely to die in custody or while being arrested than a white person is.

HB 2907 would not solve all the problems with police use of deadly force in Washington. Training on de-escalation techniques, the use of body and car cameras, education on implicit bias, and other improvements in police work are very much needed. But HB 2907 takes an important step forward in making our law more just and, quite possibly, in saving lives.

Interfaith Works thanks the legislature for moving forward on this issue so important to our state.

Thank you again for the opportunity to testify.