A petition for the Hands Up Act taking on the topic of police accountability has collected more than 2.7 million signatures. The bill proposes to send police officers who are found to have shot an unarmed person to a mandatory 15-year prison sentence.
The petition was started by a man naved Travis Washington who describes himself as someone who is “politically involved” and earned a master’s degree from Southern Illinois University-Carbondale in May 2019.
“We know how so many people of cultural minorities are in constant fear of leaving their household. This fear in our lives far too often comes from individuals working in public safety who harm people,” Washington wrote. He said that his goal was to attract the attention of members of Congress.
The Act Proposes That Police Officers Receive a 15-Year-Prison Sentence If They Shoot an Unarmed Person
According to the Daily Egyptian, Southern Illinois University’s official paper, Washington started supporting the act in December of 2018. At that time, a petition of support he created for it had reached a little over a million signatures.
Since then, this latest petition is very close to its target of three million.
We know how so many people of cultural minorities are in constant fear of leaving their household. This fear in our lives far too often comes from individuals working in public safety who harm people. Every single week we hear about another unarmed innocent vulnerable human being shot by the police. This has increased the trauma and fear that has made people of color scared to leave their homes.
We need legislation now that prohibits police officers from shooting unarmed citizens. If there isn’t a weapon found after someone has been shot (therefore, unarmed) by a police officer, then I propose that the officer should receive a mandatory 15-year prison sentence.
We have seen over and over police officers get off, even with videotape footage of citizens having been shot by police officers. This is a new form of lynching. I am pleading with you to propose a bill that protects people who have every right to feel threatened by law enforcement.
In his interview with the Daily Egyptian, Washington indicated that the bill would contain nuances based on the status of the person shot (whether it was a fatal or nonfatal shooting) and how many times the person was shot. He also said that he didn’t write the entire bill, but believes that it should be considered as a serious attempt at police accountability.
“I’ll use Dr. King as an example, he pushed for civil rights, but he didn’t write the Civil Rights Bill. I’m pushing for the ‘Hands Up Act’, but I didn’t write the whole thing,” he told the Daily Egyptian.
“Today’s a good day, but to George Floyd’s family, to Breonna Taylor’s family, Ahmaud Arbery’s family, Sean Reed’s family: change is going to come,” Washington said.
In a different interview with the Daily Egyptian, Washington spoke more about his motivations:
We’ve seen all over the country, where citizens have been shot unarmed without any guns in their hands, such as Terence Crutcher, Alton Sterling and Philando Castile. After they were shot unarmed, these officers have never served any prison sentences. What inspired me to do it [is] a disconnect between the community and police officers. If we want to rebuild this trust, we need laws in order to regain the trust.
Washington also said that he wasn’t going to let coronavirus halt his progress in an interview with Madison, Wisconsin radio station WORT 89.9: “I’m sick and tired of Black kids and brown kids being scared to call the police. I’m sick and tired of hiding behind a police car, not knowing if I’m going to die today,” he said. “None of us are going to quit. We’re not going to let fire hoses turn us around, we’re not going to let tanks turn us around, we’re not going to let a racist president turn us around and we’re damn sure not going to let the coronavirus turn us around.”
Washington said that he had contacted more than 100 Congressional representatives in attempts to lobby someone to pick it up.
Some Supporters of Law Enforcement Have Rejected the Idea
A website called Law Enforcement Today slammed Washington for being uneducated on the issues and nonspecific about what was in the act.
“Washington believes that officers who shoot someone who is ‘unarmed’ should serve a 15-year mandatory sentence, which is what the act calls for. Of course, this is based on his ‘feelings’ as opposed to any actual criminal justice backing,” the author wrote.
The author wrote that Washington was not specific about what qualified as “unarmed” and what defined a “weapon.” Instead, the author of the article wrote that the real issues were people breaking the law and not enough people paying attention to officers being killed.
You know what else is disheartening and upsetting? The number of police officers who are being killed because uneducated politicians along with students who’ve never worked the beat a day in their life seem to think they know more about policing than cops. The number of officers who won’t go home to their families because feelings-based-laws are preventing them from protecting themselves and others.
The author also said that police weren’t the issue but people breaking the law. “If people want to see a change, they should stop breaking the damn law,” the author wrote. “We need people to respect the law. We need people to not break it. We need people to not try and run cops over. To not resist arrest. To actually know the difference between right and wrong.”
Qualified Immunity & Police Accountability Remain Hot Topics
The article mocking Washington’s act did not address statistics from indicating that police officers stop and engage in use-of-force disproportionately against people of color.
According to one study from the Brookings Institution, Black residents are 3.5 times more likely to be killed by police than white people “when Blacks are not attacking or do not have a weapon” and Black teenagers are 21 times more likely than to be killed by police than white teenagers. Another study, published in a Nature Research journal, analyzed nearly one billion traffic stops. From that data, researchers found that the annual per capita rate for Black drivers was 0.10 while the annual per capita rate for white drivers was 0.07 during state patrols and the disparity was 0.2 versus 0.14 during municipal police stops.
The article was accurate in pointing out that Washington has no criminal justice background; his master’s degree is not criminal justice or public policy-related but is in higher education and administration, according to what Washington wrote in his petition.
At legislative levels, some proposals have been made to reduce or even eliminate qualified immunity for police officers, which would make it significantly easier for people to bring criminal lawsuits against officers in use-of-force incidents.
Qualified immunity is defined in law as “Qualified immunity balances two important interests—the need to hold public officials accountable when they exercise power irresponsibly and the need to shield officials from harassment, distraction, and liability when they perform their duties reasonably,” according to Cornell Law School. This law typically prevents people from bringing lawsuits against police officers unless they can show “a ‘clearly established’ statutory or constitutional right” was violated, according to Cornell Law.
A Congressional Research paper written by a legislative attorney proposed that Congress could take a number of different actions, including eliminating qualified immunity, scaling back who is shielded by qualified immunity and/or the lawsuits for which it is applicable.
Congress has wide authority to amend, expand, or even abolish the doctrine. For example, H.R. 7085—the Ending Qualified Immunity Act—would amend Section 1983 by abolishing both the “good faith” defense and the defense that the law was not clearly established at the time of the alleged misconduct. A similar proposal—limited to cases brought against certain state and local police officers and federal investigative or law enforcement officers, as defined in 28 U.S.C. § 2680(h)—is found in the Justice in Policing Act of 2020. These proposals would effectively eliminate the judicially created doctrine app.
Congress could limit the reach of the doctrine to only certain government actors (as the Justice in Policing Act of 2020 does) or limit the doctrine’s application in cases where certain rights are at stake, such as Fourth Amendment excessive force claims. Or, similar to the Reforming Qualified Immunity Act, Congress may choose to impose a new statutory test to apply to state and local actors sued in their individual capacities.
Norm Stamper, a 30-year-veteran of San Diego’s police force and the former police chief of Seattle said in an interview with Medium that police culture needs to shift. He also said police leaders should allow the community to have more control over the process and the policy:
While most police officers are decent and honorable and committed to public service and often times courageous, there are far too many police officers who have fallen into a trap. They believe they are in charge of everything. We can label that arrogance and I do. But we can also plumb a little deeper … we can look at the system.
We can focus on the culture that produces this kind of behavior. It is from that culture that these incidents emerge. We tend to fixate on the incident … That’s understandable. If there’s wrongdoing than individual officers must pay the price. (But)what happens if we don’t invest the really hard work that’s necessary to understand what gave rise to that incident?
Yes, that is the biggest impediment. It’s the insulated and often times isolated police culture. The organization has grown up, the institution has grown up, as a paramilitary, bureaucratic organization in every community across the country. You have this formidable fortress against community participation. The arcane language police officers use, the attitude they convey, they know what’s best for the community.
To be fair and to highlight one of the most promising aspects of a true partnership between community and police is that we need to educate the citizens of America that your police do have a considerable body of knowledge and a set of skills and considerable experience to help you police your community. I’ve always said that true community policing is a community policing itself with a lot of help from your partners in blue.