On July 25, 2020, police pepper-spray protesters near Seattle Central College in Seattle during a march and protest in support of Black Lives Matter. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren, File)

On July 25, 2020, police pepper-spray protesters near Seattle Central College in Seattle during a march and protest in support of Black Lives Matter. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren, File)

Inslee signs bill revising rules for use of force by police

Accountability activists are disappointed that force can still be used to temporarily detain people.

Associated Press and Herald staff

OLYMPIA — Gov. Jay Inslee signed a bill Thursday rolling back part of the state’s sweeping police reform legislation from last year after law enforcement and key Democratic lawmakers agreed the original bill went too far.

The measure, House Bill 2037, makes clear police can use force to stop people from fleeing temporary investigative detentions, known as Terry stops. Officers said restrictions passed by lawmakers in 2021 left them unable to do so, meaning potential suspects could simply leave.

Under the new bill, police still must use reasonable care, including appropriate de-escalation techniques, and they may not use force during Terry stops if the people being detained are compliant. Inslee said it “upholds the principle of police accountability, de-escalation and the protection of individual liberties.”

Police accountability activists and family members of those killed by law enforcement had urged Inslee to veto the specific section dealing with those stops.

“We are disappointed and were dismayed that his signing statement said the legislation upholds individual liberties, when it does the complete opposite and will allow more intrusive and harmful actions by police,” said Leslie Cushman of the Washington Coalition for Police Accountability.

She also criticized the governor for not acknowledging all those who sought the veto.

“He should have stayed silent or have been more forthcoming about the intense battle that was waged on this issue since late fall,” she said. “Law and order discussions are hard to begin with, and glossing over disputes doesn’t advance the dialogue.”

Asked why he chose to not veto that section, Inslee said the bill, as written, is “very reasonable” and “strikes a great balance” to allow officers to keep everyone safe at the scene of a crime.

Officers will have “an opportunity to calm the situation, to find out who did what to whom, briefly, and then maintain the peace,” he said.

Inslee had been lobbied equally hard by civic leaders and law enforcement organizations to sign the version passed by the Legislature.

Marysville Police Chief Erik Scairpon called the new law a “sensible, balanced public safety policy” and was grateful the governor didn’t ax any pieces.

“We are committed to the accountability measures that were part of these reforms, which are not changing,” Scairpon wrote in an email. “Good police officers want to be held to high standards and welcome increased transparency and the community’s trust.”

Following 2020’s widespread protests for police accountability in the wake of George Floyd’s murder, Washington lawmakers passed an array of reforms covering everything from the background checks officers undergo before they’re hired to the circumstances under which they can be decertified.

The centerpiece of the 2021 package was House Bill 1310, which said officers could use force only when they had probable cause to make an arrest or to prevent imminent injury, and that they were required to use appropriate de-escalation tactics if possible.

Police said often when officers show up at a scene, they need to detain people to figure out if they were involved in a crime. But under House Bill 1310, they couldn’t use force to detain them unless they already had probable cause to arrest them, police said.

Police accountability activists said that was by design. Too often, they argued, officers use force against the wrong people, especially minorities. The Washington Coalition for Police Accountability said last year’s legislation was “deliberately written to address discriminatory policing and reduce violence.”

“Police don’t need additional authority to use force,” Cushman said.

Rep. Jesse Johnson, D-Federal Way, who sponsored House Bill 1310, said restricting the ability of police to detain fleeing suspects was unintentional. The measure signed by Inslee Thursday allows police to do their jobs while also requiring them to use no more force than necessary.

That bill also addresses another shortcoming identified by police: They noted that while House Bill 1310 restricted when they can use force, it left undefined what “force” is. The measure defines it as any act reasonably likely to cause physical pain, or any act exerted upon a person to compel or gain control of them. It doesn’t include pat-downs or handcuffing a compliant suspect.

Inslee has now signed three bills intended to respond to concerns of police with last year’s reforms.

Earlier this month he signed one that makes clear officers may use force to help detain or transport people in behavioral health crisis and another correcting an oversight that seemed to inadvertently prohibit police departments from possessing certain “less-lethal” weapons.

A fourth bill, dealing with revising the language for when officers can engage in vehicle pursuits, died in the Senate. Cops pushed hard for it.

“While great progress was made on crafting responsible public safety policy, more remains to be done to re-establish safe communities across Washington state,” Scarpion said.

“In the past year, seven of our patrol cars have been rammed by suspects who have chosen to flee, emboldened by a restrictive pursuit policy in our state,” he said. “There remains a safety issue for our officers who risk their lives every day to serve the community and the residents of our city.”

Herald reporter Jerry Cornfield contributed to this report.

Jerry Cornfield: 360-352-8623; jcornfield@heraldnet.com; Twitter: @dospueblos.

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