By Adam Fortney / For The Herald
Recently, I have seen many Washington state legislators share messages to the public regarding the new police reform laws that went into effect July 25, 2021.
These pieces don’t allow for follow-up questions or dialogue with the public, leave many questions unanswered, and in some cases the community ends up more confused than informed. After these bills were passed, law enforcement had the duty to study the language in the new laws, obtain legal interpretations, consult with other municipalities and counties on their approach, train all of their personnel and then implement the new legislation in both the spirit and the letter of the law. We had a little more than 60 days to accomplish this monumental task.
While there is still some confusion, ambiguities and differing approaches among law enforcement agencies in their implementation of the legislation, some things are very clear and agreed upon by law enforcement in our state.
In a recent opinion piece from a state legislator, it stated it’s a myth that these new laws stop officers from catching criminals or helping the community. I have seen similar statements repeatedly shared by our state legislators who supported these new laws. However, this is simply not accurate, and this is exactly why there is controversy about the new laws; because they do just that. They inhibit law enforcement from catching criminals and helping our community. This is not the sole or arbitrary decision of one sheriff, this is the overwhelming consensus of law enforcement in the state of Washington, public safety officials, legal advisors and all of the legislators who voted against this legislation.
Let me be very specific:
One new law changed the standard to use physical force from reasonable suspicion to probable cause, which is a higher legal threshold. While this sounds great on paper, what this means to the officer on the street is they can no longer use force to conduct an investigative detention. Criminals often run from the police when they are caught committing a crime and it takes some amount of force to be able to stop them. In our state, we can no longer do this using the “reasonable suspicion” legal threshold, which remains the legal threshold in the other 49 states.
For example, if a criminal were to break into a house and was confronted by a homeowner, this criminal would most likely run away. The homeowner would provide a suspect description to the 911 dispatcher and this would be relayed to the police. This description by the homeowner would amount to reasonable suspicion for law enforcement to stop a suspect matching the description. Because of this new limitation imposed on law enforcement by the Legislature, we will now watch this suspect run away from us. The Pierce County Sheriff’s Department recently decided not to use a K-9 track to help locate a murder suspect precisely because of this change to the law.
It is not a myth that these new laws stop us from helping the community; this is the real-world consequences of these new laws.
Another new law also severely limits police pursuits, which as a result stops law enforcement from catching criminals. Pursuit policies have always been up to local jurisdictions to determine what is right for their communities. What is right for an agency like Seattle may not be right for a rural jurisdiction in Eastern Washington.
In addition, law enforcement in Washington state uses their authority to pursue a suspect very judiciously. Just this week, Snohomiosh Sheriff’s Office deputies located a vehicle that was involved in a burglary at a local gun store and was also linked to a string of other recent burglaries. As a result of the new legislation, we watched as the criminals fled from us in the middle of the night because we could not legally pursue them. Without the ability to pursue and capture the suspects, these burglaries may go unsolved with no resolution for the victims.
These new laws also severely limit when law enforcement can help the community, specifically persons in a mental health or behavioral health crisis. Law enforcement can no longer use force unless there is probable cause for a crime or there is risk or threat of imminent bodily injury to themself or others. Again, this sounds good on paper, but the real-world consequences endanger the community, mental health professionals and medical personnel.
A very recent example of this occurred when someone in our community called 911 to report their adult son was in a mental health crisis. This person was located a few blocks away where law enforcement and medical professionals determined this individual in crisis met the legal requirements to be committed to the hospital, where he would be able to get help.
However, this person in crisis wasn’t willing to go, and law enforcement officers can no longer use even minimal force to get an individual transported by aid. The person then ran away through a residential area and unlawfully entered a residence where the homeowner held this individual at knifepoint until the police responded a second time. This homeowner unnecessarily had to deal with the trauma of someone in crisis entering his home when the police were previously in place to prevent this and get the person help. The new legislation prevented this from happening and needlessly created a victim in our community.
I have also seen many state legislators publicly state they are willing to help clarify and fix the unintended consequences of these new laws. On Aug. 16, 2021, the Washington State Sheriff’s Association called for a special session of the Legislature to fix portions of these new laws. It is not often that the 39 elected sheriffs in Washington state are in agreement, but we all agree that now is the time to clarify and fix portions of the new legislation. This would be the right thing to do.
Adam Fortney is Snohomish County Sheriff.