Washington is now embarking on an extensive experiment in police reform after the racial justice demonstrations that erupted following George Floyd’s death last year. Nearly a dozen laws went into effect Sunday.
But two months after Gov. Jay Inslee signed the bills, law enforcement officials remain uncertain about what they require, leading to discrepancies around the state in how officers might respond — or not respond — to certain situations, including active crime scenes, welfare checks and mental health crises.
Rafael Padilla is the Kent police chief, a suburb of Seattle. He said that when you apply the law, you can really see how effective it is. The challenge is — and I will be very honest — the laws were poorly written and the mixture of them all has resulted in conflicts in clarity and what was meant versus what was actually written.
These laws were passed by the Democratic-controlled Legislature and signed by a Democratic governor. They are likely to be the most ambitious law reform in the country. These laws cover almost all aspects of police work, from background checks to be completed before officers are hired to the time they can use force. They also include how data is collected and when they can use it.
Sakara Remmu of Washington Black Lives Matter Alliance stated that supporters would ensure the strongest police accountability in America and eliminate racial inequity within the justice system. Moms Demand Action reports that police in Washington have killed 260 people since 2013. Disproportionately, they were Black — including Manuel Ellis, whose death in Tacoma last year led to murder or manslaughter charges against three officers and spurred some of the legislation.
First-term Federal Way Democrat Rep. Jesse Johnson sponsored legislation on police tactics, use of force and other topics. He acknowledged that clarifications were necessary, but stated that this is not unusual in complex legislation.
Johnson stated that “we have to create new policy, because what was being done before was not working.” “We wanted to set an expectation with these bills that officers will de-escalate and that the law is enforced less lethally. It’s a paradigm shift that is causing a lot of resistance.
These measures prohibit chokeholds, neck restraints, and no-knock warrants. They also limit the use tear gas and military gear. They were inspired by officers who watched in Minneapolis as Derek Chauvin pulled a knee at Floyd’s neck.
They limit the number of officers who can engage in car chases, make it easier for police to be decertified for bad acts, make it easier for officers to sue each other, and require police to exercise “reasonable care” when carrying out their duties. This includes exhausting all appropriate de-escalation tactics prior to using force.
Some of the changes have been accepted by law enforcement officers who said that they support the goals set forth by lawmakers.
Officers are in a difficult position because of uncertainty over how to comply and the greater chance of being decertified or held personally responsible in court.
Steve Strachan, executive Director of the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs stated in a statement that “policing reforms might have the positive effect of reducing violent interactions between law enforcement and public.” We owe it our public to be open and share our concern that certain policing reforms could have unintended consequences that lead to increased confusion, frustration, victimization and crime in our communities.
The restriction on military-grade weapons would, for example, inadvertently prohibit some less-lethal impacts weapons such as the shotguns used by police to fire beanbag rounds.
Johnson stated that the context clearly demonstrates Johnson’s intent to allow, not ban, the use of less-lethal weapons. Johnson expected that the state attorney general would clarify the situation until the Legislature fixes the language next year.
However, Spokane Police and King County Sheriff’s Office have left their beanbag guns behind, while Kent and Auburn will still use them.
A change in the time officers can use “physical forc” is even more important. Although it isn’t specified in the new law but is commonly interpreted as a minor force like handcuffing someone, this term is still significant. Although the attorney general was charged with creating a model policy for using force by July next year, agencies are currently consulting lawyers to understand what that new law means.
Police have always been allowed to temporarily detain people if they have reasonable suspicion. This is a common sense notion based on specific facts that someone may be involved in a crime. They can then continue to investigate to determine if probable cause exists for an arrest.
But under one of the new laws, police now need probable cause — a higher standard, based on evidence that the person committed or was about to commit the crime — before they use force. They can also use force when there is an imminent danger of injury. However, they cannot use deadly force to protect against serious injury or death.
Johnson stated that the higher standard was designed to prevent police from using force against wrong people, which is a problem in communities of color.
It also means that police may sometimes have to let bad guys go temporarily.
Officers can ask the person to leave voluntarily if they arrive at a scene of a burglary and see someone who matches the description of the suspect. They can ask the suspect to stop if the person flees, but they cannot use force to arrest them. Once probable cause has been established, an arrest would be made.
The Criminal Justice Training Commission is the operator of the state’s police academy. It already emphasizes deescalation tactics, and started training last year on the duty to intervene even before the law was passed. It has had to change its teaching to include the probable cause requirement to use force.
In a recent training scenario Ken Westphal advised recruits to take statements from a convenience store proprietor who was threatened by a customer and asked them, “How did it make you feel?”
Westphal stated that in order to establish probable cause, the officers had to prove that the owner felt fear. This is an element of the crime felony harassment. If he did run, the officers wouldn’t be able to arrest him.
Westphal stated that “there is no one else in the country being forced to do this.” “We have always operated in reasonable suspicion. These force options don’t exist unless there is probable cause.
However, this approach is not universal. Kent is one of the departments that has stated that they will arrest suspects who flee from cases of residential burglary or violent crime even though they do not yet have probable cause.
Padilla stated, “I don’t allow violent felons to take off.” “I understand why Criminal Justice Training Commission does what it is doing. But you can see that even experts with decades of experience in the field don’t agree on the meaning of these laws.”
In such situations, other departments, including King County Sheriff’s Office won’t arrest anyone. Sometimes, obstruction, or “contemptof cop”, is a frivolous charge. It’s filed by officers when there is no evidence of other crimes. Prosecutors are not likely to pursue it.
Concerns about mental health are similar. People in crisis are often treated by police, even if they are not committing any crimes. However, according to Disability Rights Washington advocacy group, police are refusing to turn up.
Officials claim that officers don’t know if they have the authority or power to use force to transport or detain those people, absent imminent danger or probable cause. Police are required to use all de-escalation techniques, which can include leaving the scene.
As police leave the state and the profession, these laws take effect. Hundreds of officers are now in Seattle following last year’s protests, criticism and talk about “defunding”. Padilla stated that 21 of the 70 Kent Police Department uniformed patrol officers are now at risk due to an increase in early retirements, and officers moving on to jobs in Idaho, Montana, and other states. He blamed antipolice sentiments and new laws.
Because of their limited resources, departments have to decide if it is worth responding to non-criminal mental health calls even though officers may be forced to leave.
Thurston County law enforcement agencies announced Monday that they will largely cease handling “community care” situations like suicidal people and welfare checks, drug overdoses, and instead allow emergency responders, firefighters, or medics to handle such calls.
These statements were criticized. In a blog post, Kim Mosolf of Disability Rights Washington and Enoka Herat of the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington accused some departments of “dangerously misinterpreting” the law.
They said that nothing in the bill overrides the police’s ability to help with mental health calls. In fact, the Involuntary Treat Act still provides strong liability protections for police officers.
Meyer stated that as Meyer becomes more familiar with how these bills are applied, they will adapt to continue to serve the community.