Members of law enforcement in Washington state are concerned about the impact of a series of police reform laws signed by Governor Jay Inslee earlier this year. The laws went into effect on July 25.
While state lawmakers say the laws, which are designed to hold officers accountable and limit the use of deadly force, will make the state a safer place, law enforcement believes the opposite. Police are concerned that the laws will impair their ability to do their job.
Steven Strachan, executive director of the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs, said, “There’s a real concern that it could increase crime, and it could increase reckless driving, traffic fatalities.”
The series of bills targeted bans on chokeholds, neck restraints and “no knock warrants.” They also limit officers’ use of tear gas and when police can pursue subjects.
Sergeant Darren Moss with the Pierce County Sheriff’s Department said the laws will slow down their ability to act.
“We’re going to kind of have to think outside the box on how we can change our tactics to kind of apprehend people without apprehending people.”
Previously, all that was required for action was “reasonable suspicion” of a crime. Now officers will require a tougher standard of “probable cause” to act.
“People who might think about running, now know law enforcement will not be able to do anything to stop them, unless they have this probable cause, which is going to take a little more time,” Moss explained.
Agencies say the new laws may also conflict with previous laws. For instance, one of the new laws banning the use of weapons that fire .50-caliber rounds or larger could interfere with the use of less-than-lethal launchers that fire rubber balls. While the law is intended for military-grade rifles, it may restrict the use of beanbag guns and other less-deadly weapons as well.
Interim Seattle Police Chief Adrian Diaz said, “While the plain language of HB 1054 would, when strictly construed and read in isolation, prohibit this tool as military equipment, I am of increasing confidence that it was not the intent of the legislature to do so, and that the legislature will make that clear. It is simply anathema to every principle on which these bills are grounded to conclude that the legislature, while promoting in one bill the expanded use of less lethal tools, intended to strip from departments in another an established tool that has allowed marked success in bringing about positive outcomes in dangerous situations. SPD will, accordingly, be maintaining its 40mm program.”
Law enforcement officials also raised concerns about a law they say would ban police response to 9-1-1 calls for domestic violence and mental health crises except under certain conditions. The bills’ sponsor says that restricting less-lethal tools and police response was not the intent, and that clarification on some of the seemingly contradictory points of law would be forthcoming from the attorney general and legislature. But at the time the new laws went into effect, the confusion remained.
Spokane Police Chief Craig Meidl thinks the reforms go too far.
“Reform to me means that something is broken, to me. I don’t think, that majority of law enforcement in Washington State is broken. I think what we need to do, and what we are obligated to do, is constantly evolve,” Meidl said. “I do feel like, based on the language of the bills that were passed and will become law on July 25, I think this has gone too far, and I think this is going to create dangerous communities.”
Liberty Lake Police Chief Damon Simmons was “sickened” by the new reforms.
“We in law enforcement are going to experience the inability to protect the public” in the manner in which they’ve been sworn to, Chief Simmons said. “It actually sickens me to think that people are going to call 9-1-1 and ask for assistance and they’re not going to get it.”