An instructor playing the role of a suspect in a vehicle sticks her hands out of a car door during a training class at the Washington state Criminal Justice Training Commission on July 14 in Burien. Washington state is embarking on a massive experiment in police reform and accountability following the racial justice protests that erupted after George Floyd’s murder last year, with nearly a dozen new laws that took effect Sunday, July 25, but law enforcement officials remain uncertain about what they require in how officers might respond — or not respond — to certain situations, including active crime scenes and mental health crises. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)

An instructor playing the role of a suspect in a vehicle sticks her hands out of a car door during a training class at the Washington state Criminal Justice Training Commission on July 14 in Burien. Washington state is embarking on a massive experiment in police reform and accountability following the racial justice protests that erupted after George Floyd’s murder last year, with nearly a dozen new laws that took effect Sunday, July 25. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)

As police adjust to reforms, crisis responders feel deserted

A new law leaves mentally ill people on the streets, responders say. It’s not what lawmakers intended.

EVERETT — The man was in the midst of a manic episode. He refused psychiatric help, but he desperately needed it.

That’s what crisis responder Preston Hess determined when called to the man’s Snohomish County home earlier this month to assess whether he met the legal criteria for involuntary treatment.

He was pacing the home, talking about stabbing and killing, Hess observed. His parents had locked themselves in a bedroom.

But the man wasn’t taken to a hospital that day to be cleared for admission into a psychiatric facility — even though his mental illness had intensified to a point that he was a danger to himself and others, said Hess, who has more than 40 years of experience making such evaluations.

Law enforcement officers told Hess they couldn’t force the man to go. They cited a new law that limits use of force by police.

The man was arrested for assaulting a family member two days later, Hess said.

Snohomish County’s team of designated crisis responders fears this tragic-turn-of-events will become a recurring one as law enforcement officers, whom they’ve always relied upon to get gravely ill people the care they need, adjust their policies to align with the new legislation.

“Now, suddenly we’re faced with a situation where the police have their hands tied by this new law,” Hess said. “We’re having to walk away from situations where we’ve deemed and determined that the person poses an imminent danger, where the person should be in (the) hospital to be treated for mental illness.”

The crisis responders say it’s an unintended consequence of the new law, which Gov. Jay Inslee signed in May as part of a package of sweeping police accountability legislation.

House Bill 1310, which takes effect on Sunday, aims to reduce police brutality by establishing a state standard for permissible use of force and requiring law enforcement officers to use “de-escalation tactics” before getting physical with someone.

The law limits the use of physical force by police officers to specific circumstances: when there’s probable cause to make an arrest, to prevent an escape, or to protect themselves or others against “imminent threat of bodily injury.”

The budding issue now facing crisis responders underscores the complexities of putting criminal justice reforms in practice in a system where police routinely play a role handling people with severe mental illness who don’t get the care they need until they are in dire straits.

The county’s team of about 20 crisis responders has already noticed major changes in how officers are responding to their calls for help.

Even in cases where someone has a history of violence and is clearly experiencing a psychotic episode, police have declined to assist in their detention, the crisis responders say.

“The only times they are willing to lay hands on the person is when they are in the process of an active arrest,” Hess said.

Reform meant to save lives

Some state lawmakers who backed the bill are working with law enforcement officials and mental health experts to determine what questions need to be answered so that police can continue assisting the crisis responders, said state Rep. Roger Goodman, D-Kirkland, one of the bill’s sponsors.

The law requires that the state Attorney General’s office develop model policies on use of force and de-escalation tactics by July 2022.

Goodman and other legislators are seeking guidance from the office before that.

“We very much understand the confusion and concern among the law enforcement and mental health professionals,” said Goodman, who chairs the House Public Safety Committee. “But I think everyone understands what the intent of the legislation is. That hasn’t changed.”

During the last legislative session, police reform was a major conversation, driven by calls for racial justice following the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and other Black people at the hands of police in 2020.

Proponents of the new laws have said they represent a major change in the way police interact with the public, particularly people of color.

Given the magnitude of the shift, it’s no surprise that there are some questions about House Bill 1310’s interpretation, said sponsor Rep. Jesse Johnson, D-Federal Way.

There will be times when law enforcement, policymakers and others involved in the implementation of these laws have to “come back to the table to collaborate,” Johnson said.

And this is one of them, he said.

Local law enforcement agencies said this week they are worried about how the law will affect their ability to respond to calls where behavioral health problems are at play, such as crisis responder calls and welfare checks.

In a series of posts to the Snohomish County Sheriff’s Office Facebook page this week, Sheriff Adam Fortney expressed concerns about the impacts of House Bill 1310 and other reforms, saying they could have unforeseen consequences that could make the public less safe.

“Deputy sheriffs can no longer use force, even minimal force, to detain a person in crisis for transportation to a hospital,” Fortney said in a Tuesday post. “The only instance a police officer may use force in this situation is if there is an imminent threat of bodily injury to a person. As a result, sheriff deputies will have to walk away from many crisis incidents far more often than in the past.”

The Everett Police Department has assured the county’s crisis responders they will still answer calls for assistance, said John DeRousse, deputy chief of operations for the department.

As of early last week, the department had not yet made any official changes to its policy as a result of the law, DeRousse said.

Law enforcement agencies can still decide how they respond to calls about mental health issues, Sen. Manka Dhingra (D-Redmond) and Sen. Jamie Pedersen (D-Seattle) said on Friday.

“Law enforcement officers have always had the discretion to choose how to respond to calls for behavioral health crises, and that remains the case,” the two lawmakers said in a statement. “HB 1310 does not remove that discretion or limit the authorization to take people into custody if needed. Neither does it remove the ethical duty of law enforcement to help people in crisis.”

Meanwhile, Republicans opposed the law, partly out of concern with how it would affect day-to-day policing. On Friday, GOP leaders called on the governor and Democrats to sit down with them and law enforcement agencies to resolve concerns.

“This needs to be done quickly before more harm is done to the communities and people we represent,” Senate Minority Leader John Braun, R-Centralia, and House Minority Leader J.T. Wilcox, R-Yelm, said in a statement.

Responders in crisis

In the past three weeks, law enforcement’s response to the crisis responders’ calls for help has varied by agency and by individual officer, the crisis responders say.

Supervisors of the team have a list of more than a dozen examples of mentally ill people who law enforcement officers have declined to detain, even though a crisis responder said they met the criteria for involuntary commitment. A county Human Services division manager provided that list to The Daily Herald.

One crisis responder called for police help when visiting a group home to evaluate a man who was threatening to kill the other residents and “smash” staff’s heads in. She was initially told by a 9-1-1 dispatcher that police would not come, according to the list.

Officers eventually arrived, after the man ripped a TV off the wall and approached the crisis responder in her personal space. Still, the police said they couldn’t intervene — even when the man began lighting small items on fire.

One man was deemed eligible for involuntary treatment one day and again the next day when a crisis responder received a call that he was blocking traffic and holding a rock above his head in the road. Police at first said they couldn’t use force to take him to a hospital, the list says.

About 45 minutes after his second evaluation, officers detained him after a woman called 9-1-1 because he was aggressively blocking her outside of a bank, preventing her from reaching her vehicle with her small child inside.

“It’s scary,” said crisis responder Debbie Johnson. “It’s scary the people we’re leaving out on the street. It’s scary for the clients themselves, who are really vulnerable. It’s scary for the family members, who are often being threatened. And it’s really scary for the community at large.”

“It’s making a hard job impossible,” Johnson said.

Some police have stayed in patrol vehicles during crisis responder calls, said Carola Schmid, a supervisor for the crisis responder team.

Others have refused to approach a home with a crisis responder or knock on the door.

And in some cases, police have declined to come at all, Schmid said.

“Our staff really feel that they can no longer perform this duty because of all the complications,” she said.

State law requires that a crisis responder be accompanied by a police officer or mental health professional during a home visit.

In the past, when a person has declined psychiatric help and meets the criteria for involuntary treatment, law enforcement officers have often helped by telling the person to get into an ambulance, she said.

They might have put a hand on the person’s shoulder or maybe used handcuffs. But police presence during these calls has seldom escalated to a violent struggle, she said.

The lack of police assistance is adding to the already difficult job of crisis responders, who seek involuntary treatment as a last resort for mentally ill people who have slipped through the cracks in the mental health system.

“This has really kicked everybody’s frustration level up significantly,” Schmid said. “Ultimately we’re the person who steps in when everything else has failed.”

People with mental health disorders often have little or no access to the care they need early on to prevent treatable problems from becoming critical situations, said Karen Schilde, a board member for the National Alliance on Mental Illness Snohomish County.

Schilde and others with loved ones who are severely ill recognize that involuntary treatment is sometimes necessary. But the new law, in spite of its good intentions, has made the process nearly impossible for crisis responders, she said.

“They are the gatekeepers. They do a very thankless job,” Schilde said. “But now we have rendered them totally powerless.”

Changing standards

Local law enforcement agencies are still sorting through the ramifications of House Bill 1310 and the accompanying reforms.

“Legal experts are having a hard time understanding some of the implications of these bills and what they say,” said DeRousse.

“You’re going to see some inconsistencies in how different areas are interpreting it,” he said of the new use of force standard.

The sheriff, along with Mill Creek and Arlington police, said in statements this week that House Bill 1310 will limit police’s ability to catch suspects immediately after a crime has been committed.

HB 1310 raises the bar for the legal standard of proof — from “reasonable suspicion” to “probable cause” — that must be met in a suspected crime for law enforcement to use force, Fortney said on Facebook.

“With the new threshold being ‘probable cause,’ a deputy sheriff will have to have articulable facts, that are confirmed by a victim or witness, that a specific crime has occurred and the person we are seeking is the one responsible,” he said. “That means we can no longer stop and detain a fleeing suspect matching a description who is running from the area of a crime that just occurred. We must first make contact with the reporting party or a witness, confirm the facts of the crime, develop probable cause and then we can go back and look for that individual.”

The Arlington Police Department raised the same concern on its Facebook page.

“Although police departments have invested the last two decades working hand-in-hand with communities to effectively lower violent crime rates (community policing), these new laws change how police in WA State respond to crime altogether,” the department said in a Monday post. “They may also limit our ability to assist in community caretaking functions such as responding to suspicious circumstances, suspicious people, welfare checks, and helping those in crisis or struggling with mental health issues.”

In a statement issued on Thursday, the Washington Fraternal Order of Police advocated for “a formal written legal opinion” from the state Attorney General regarding House Bill 1310 and another new reform laws.

“It’s unfortunate that some in law enforcement are misinterpreting these laws, disregarding what we believe is clear legislative intent and are using these changes to politicize their implementation,” said President Marco Monteblanco.

“This is a time for leadership and for those of us in law enforcement to get this right,” Monteblanco said. “Proper implementation of these bills is too important to do otherwise.”

Rachel Riley: 425-339-3465; Twitter: @rachel_m_riley.

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