When Puyallup Tribal member Jacqueline Salyers was killed by a Tacoma Police officer in January 2016, her cousin Chester Earl made a promise to Salyer’s mother, Lisa Earl.
"I told her, 'I promise you I will be here until we find justice for Jackie.'"
Earl told Indian Country Today that he kept that promise. For nearly three years he has worked to change the Washington state law regarding the use of deadly force by police officers. On August 28, the Washington State Supreme Court determined that an initiative to change the law will be sent to voters for the November ballot.
Washington State Initiative 940, the Police De-Escalation Bill, will require law enforcement to receive training in de-escalation, in mental illness, and in providing first aid at the scene of police incidents. It also requires independent investigations of police shootings, mandates the inclusion of tribal governments when tribal citizens are shot, and, perhaps most importantly, makes it easier to prosecute police officers who misuse deadly force.
Jackie's tragic legacy
Jacqueline Salyers, known as Jackie, was a pregnant 32-year-old homeless Puyallup woman living in a car with her boyfriend Kenneth Wright when two Tacoma Police officers pulled up to them on the night of January 28, 2016. Wright had warrants out for his arrest on robbery, drug and weapons charges.
The two officers approached the car with their weapons drawn and began shouting at Wright to put his hands in the air. According to police, Jackie started the car and began driving away. One of the officers believed Jackie was trying to run him over. He fired seven rounds, hitting her four times, once in the temple. She died at the scene.
As tragic as Jackie's death was, it was merely the latest in what appears to be an epidemic of police shootings in Washington state. A 2015 Seattle Times story about Washington police shootings states 213 people were killed by police in the ten years from 2005 and 2014. Although many of these shootings were questionable and in some cases even outrageous, only one officer has ever been criminally-charged with misuse of deadly force. The reason claimed by many is a poorly worded Washington state law.
Current law - a license to kill
According to Washington state law, police officers cannot be prosecuted for misusing deadly force unless it can be proven they acted with malice or evil intent. As long as an officer acts without malice and in good faith, they cannot be held criminally liable for killing people in the line of duty.
Realizing that the state of Washington’s extreme leniency in allowing police to shoot suspects, and since it's nearly impossible to prove someone's state of mind, allowing police officers in Washington state to have a virtual license to kill, Earl worked diligently to seek justice for his cousin by asking for adjustments to the laws.
"Once I realized what was going on out there, it sparked my activism," Earl said.
Soon after Jackie's death, Earl also formed a group called Justice for Jackie.
A coalition is formed
The Justice for Jackie group started meeting weekly at the Puyallup Tribe’s Little Wild Wolves Youth/Community Center, where Jackie’s mother, Lisa Earl, is the director.
“That's where it all began, pretty much,” Lisa told ICT, “here at the youth center.”
As time went on, the families of other police shooting victims began attending the meetings.
“It seemed like the police went on some sort of a killing spree and our circle kept getting bigger and bigger,” she said.
Within months, the group was approached by activist Lisa Hayes to help get Initiative 873, an early version of Initiative 940, passed.
"We tried our dang-dest," Chester Earl recalls, "We had rallies. We went out and gathered signatures. But we came up short on signatures, so 873 died."
Eventually, Justice for Jackie teamed up with over 20 other community organizations, including the Puyallup tribe, to form a coalition called De-Escalate Washington.
"We wrote I-940, hired a campaign manager, and gathered signatures for it. The Puyallup tribe became the largest financial backer, donating over $375,000,” Earl said.
The coalition gathered 359,000 signatures, almost 80,000 more than was required for certification. In December 2017, the initiative was taken to the state legislature to be put on the November 2018 ballot.
Puyallup Tribal Council member James Rideout, uncle of Tacoma Police shooting victim Jacqueline Salyers, delivers a box of signatures endorsing Initiative 940, the police de-escalation bill, to the Washington state legislature in December 2017. (Photo courtesy De-Escalate Washington)
The legislative two-step: HB3003
Rep. Roger Goodman (D-Kirkland) and Rep. Dave Hayes (R-Stanwood) realized the initiative would generate a highly adversarial campaign when it went to the ballot, with law enforcement groups on one side and initiative supporters on the other. They came up with an plan to avoid that.
They brought groups from both sides together to change the initiative so it would be acceptable to all. The initiative itself could not be changed, but a house bill would be drafted to amend it. This bill, HB3003, became known as the Police De-Escalation Compromise Bill.
The idea was for the legislature to vote on and pass both the Initiative 940 and HB3003 pretty much simultaneously, thus bypassing the need to take it to voters and avoiding a potentially polarizing public campaign. On March 8, the last day of the 2018 legislative session, the legislature passed both I-940 and the compromise bill amending it, HB3003.
Then, within days after the passage, initiative activist Tim Eyman sued the state legislature and De-Escalate Washington, saying the state’s maneuver to pass an initiative and simultaneously amend it was contrary to the state constitution. The suit demands passage of the initiative and the bill to be voided and I-940 to be placed on the ballot in November for voter approval. On August 28, the Washington State Supreme Court agreed. Now, I-940, without the compromise bill HB3003, will appear on the November ballot.
A special cake created to honor the passage of Initiative 940 and House Bill 3003, the Washington state police de-escalation bills, is presented at a special celebration held at the Emerald Queen Casino on March 31. The cake's design is meant to illustrate the cooperation of initiative supporters and law enforcement groups. The theme was, "Building bridges between law enforcement and the community." (Photo by Frank Hopper)
Justice for Jackie now in doubt
One important detail, lost in all the political maneuvering, says Lisa Earl, was that Jackie was trapped in an abusive relationship with her boyfriend.
“He was very abusive, mentally, physically,” her mother Lisa Earl said. “At my work she’d call me, ‘Mom, mom! He said he’ll kill you if I don't go with him.’ He terrorized our family. The police did nothing about it. I don't know if he was working with police as one of their informants. I don't know. He started getting out of hand. He kept my daughter away from me.”
Lisa Earl tried several times to have Wright arrested, but the police seemed to turn a blind eye, possibly because, as a gang member, they needed him as an informant. Presumably, after they were done using him, they came after him and Jackie was caught in the crossfire. The police explanation, that she tried to run them over, is questionable since one bullet hit her in the temple, obviously fired from the side of the car.
“They just went about it in all the wrong ways, which is why I-940 is so important,” she said.
Lisa Earl says her daughter Jackie was a double victim. She was a domestic abuse victim who needed to be rescued. And the police, who should have protected her, instead turned her into a police shooting victim.
“The police need to be held accountable just like everyone else,” Lisa said, fighting back tears. “They're supposed to protect and serve. Did they protect my daughter? No. No they did not.”