A slate of police reform laws in Washington state signed by Gov. Jay Inslee have led to confusion and discrepancies in how law enforcement should or should not respond to certain situations.
Following the racial justice protests that erupted last year after the death of George Floyd, Washington State passed nearly a dozen controversial and experimental bills to reform the law enforcement industry and increase accountability in the force.
However, after the laws went into effect nearly two months ago, law enforcement is still scratching their head about conflicting language in the bills that could interfere with the way they respond to certain situations like active crime scenes, mental health crises and welfare checks.
Rafael Padilla, the police chief in the south Seattle suburb of Kent, described the language of the law as lacking in clarity. “When you take the legislation and apply it, that’s when you really learn how effective it’s going to be. The challenge is — I’m going to be very frank — the laws were written very poorly, and the combination of them all at the same time has led to there being conflicts in clarity and in what was intended versus what was written,” he said.
The laws, passed by a Democrat-majority Legislature and governor, are the most ambitious and progressive laws passed as a result of last year’s protests and cover nearly all aspects of policing from background checks, use of force, data collection and the establishment of a civilian use-of-force oversight agency.
The Clark County Sheriff’s Office also expressed their concern about the reforms. Sheriff Chuck Atkins wrote in a statement:
“Our concern is that the new legislation will have some unintentional consequences that could put the public and police officers in jeopardy. I expect that people could see a reduced police response and extended investigations as a result,” he wrote.
Rep. Jesse Johnson, a Democrat who sponsored bills on police tactics and use of force, admitted that the bill needs further clarifications, but that this is not an unexpected occurrence.
“We have to create new policies, because what we were doing before was not working. What we wanted to do with these bills is set an expectation that officers de-escalate and that there’s less lethal enforcement of the law. A lot of the pushback we’re getting is because it’s a paradigm shift,” he explained.
Major changes in the bills include the banning of chokeholds, neck-restraints and no-knock warrants, as well as requiring officers to intervene if a colleague uses excess force. The laws also restrict officers’ ability to pursue suspects.
There is also more pressure on police to comply with the laws, which are often vague or confusing, due to more personal liability in court and a greater risk of being decertified.
Areas of confusion exist in the definition of “physical force,” which can refer to something as minor as handcuffing someone. Under the new laws, police are restricted from using physical force without probable cause – a higher legal standard of certainty that a criminal act is being committed.
Previously, police just needed “reasonable suspicion” to act. ABC News said that now police may sometimes “let the bad guy go” as a result of the new measures.
The Criminal Justice Training Commission, which operates the state’s police academy, plans to modify its training to cover the new standards.
In addition, the laws ban military-grade equipment in order to reduce lethal force, although some military-grade equipment – like bean bag guns – is effective and non-lethal.
Steve Strachan, executive director of the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs, stated his concern about the laws on behalf of the organization.
“The policing reforms may have the positive impact of reducing the number of violent interactions between law enforcement and the public. However, we owe it to the public we serve to be candid and share that we are deeply concerned that some policing reforms may have unintended outcomes that result in increased levels of confusion, frustration, victimization, and increased crime within our communities,” he said.
The laws take effect at the same time that the Seattle Police Department is understaffed and lacking in resources due to anti-police sentiment, with some even refusing to handle community care calls.
Sgt. Tim Meyer, a spokesman for the King County Sheriff’s Office, responded to other agencies’ responses to the bills that they will adapt to the new laws as usual.
“As we get more familiar with the application of these bills, we’re going to adapt and continue to serve the community,” Meyer said.