Everett Police investigate a shooting at the corner of Rucker and Everett avenues on April 10, 2020. (Sue Misao / The Herald file photo)

Everett Police investigate a shooting at the corner of Rucker and Everett avenues on April 10, 2020. (Sue Misao / The Herald file photo)

Editorial: Take time to implement, adjust police reforms

State lawmakers’ reforms created a daunting to-do list for police; work remains to make the goals real.

By The Herald Editorial Board

It’s one thing to pass a law; another to make it work.

That’s the reminder as the state’s law enforcement agencies, local governments and others continue efforts to implement an ambitious package of 12 separate reforms adopted by state lawmakers earlier this year, intended to improve law enforcement agencies’ accountability and transparency, limit abuses and end practices that were seen as harmful and inequitable.

The intentions of lawmakers, however — some in the law enforcement community and elsewhere are saying, even as they voice support for many of the overall goals — bit off more than those agencies can now chew.

For a profession that is often criticized for glacial progress on most issues, lawmakers moved with refreshing speed when it came to policing reforms. Prompted in large part by the May 2020 murder of George Floyd while in the custody of Minneapolis police, lawmakers quickly began meeting to discuss and draft some of the legislation. Lawmakers also were quick to respond to a state Supreme Court decision this February that found state law regarding possession of controlled substances unconstitutional.

In all, 16 bills were considered during this year’s regular session, and a dozen were adopted. Among the legislation signed into law were bills that require officers to intervene when they witness another officer engage in excessive use of force; expanded the conduct for which an officer’s certification can be revoked by the state’s Criminal Justice Training Commission; barred the use of choke-holds, some military-style equipment and no-knock warrants; establishes an independent office to investigate deadly force incidents and will require law enforcement agencies to collect and forward reports to the state Attorney General’s office on use-of-force incidents.

That broad slate of reforms, said state Rep. John Lovick, D-Mill Creek, during a conversation earlier this summer between the editorial board and local legislators, was driven by a commitment to respond to past abuses, including Floyd’s murder and the protests that followed that summer.

“One of the first testimonies we heard in the law and justice committee was from a woman named Monisha who stepped up and said, ‘The year 2020 gave us perfect vision,’ and she talked about the fact that it showed us all the inequities that existed in society,” he said.

The intention from the start, said Lovick, whose career includes years as a State Patrol trooper and Snohomish County sheriff, was to uphold the law enforcement profession while improving community relations, accountability and transparency.

Law enforcement officials, including Everett Police Chief Dan Templeman, largely agree with those goals. Templeman and his department have been leaders in the state on implementing better policing reforms, among them embedding social workers and crisis responders in their interactions with those with mental health challenges; increasing training in crisis intervention and de-escalation; reporting use of deadly force to the Federal Bureau of Investigation; and reporting incidents of hate crimes.

But the new laws and their requirements, Templeman told the editorial board last month, came with unfunded mandates, little guidance regarding how they would be implemented and a lack of consideration for unintended consequences.

“What you’re finding statewide is confusion and uncertainty and disagreement amongst lawyers, very experienced legal advisers, and attorneys statewide, and I think that’s a problem,” Templeman told Seattle NPR station KUOW (94.9 FM) last week.

The Legislature’s solution to the Supreme Court’s Blake decision, for example, limits police response to someone found with a controlled substance, which is no longer considered a felony. Senate Bill 5476 requires law enforcement, in their first two contacts with someone possessing drugs, to refer that person to assessment and treatment services, rather than being booked into jail and referred for prosecution.

The challenge, Templeman said, for himself and other law enforcement officials is to quickly turn around and make those changes, several of which had to be completed by the end of last month.

“We have to drop everything and figure out how we’re going to implement this,” he said. His department — and others — had no system in place for such referrals.

Another bill, House Bill 1310, which has received widespread attention concerning its limitations on the use of force, has led some agencies in the state to pull back from responding to incidents involving those in a mental health crisis. The new standard is that physical force, including handcuffing an individual, can be used when there’s probable cause for an arrest or when there’s an imminent threat. Unless someone in distress is threatening harm to themselves or others, police officials have said, they don’t believe they have authority to detain someone, or even respond to such calls.

Late last week, agencies got some guidance on the issue, however. While an official legal opinion and standards aren’t expected from the state Office of the Attorney General until next July, the office issued guidance at the request of state legislators that should make clear that police can respond — and use physical force when necessary — during so-called “community caretaking” calls, including calls regarding mental health concerns.

“Bill 1310’s plain language does not address nor limit a peace officer’s authority to respond to community caretaking calls,” the memo said.

Interpreting lawmakers’ intent, based on the language of a bill, offers some insight into how unintended consequences can seep into legislation. Templeman cited a bill that was meant to curtail the use of military-style equipment by limiting the caliber of firearms. That might sound reasonable, he noted, until you realize that some “less-than-lethal” tools used by police, such as “sponge” and beanbag rounds require launchers that exceed the law’s caliber requirement.

The frustrations of law enforcement agencies and officers — both with the expectations placed on them to turn on a dime and implement new policies and procedures and with the sheer number of those mandates — are understandable and should be noted by lawmakers and by the groups and advocates that pushed for those reforms. Acknowledgement is due for the cumulative demand that the package of reforms placed on law enforcement agencies and on officers themselves.

Where legislation was deficient in providing adequate funding, time, guidance and clarity, lawmakers will need to address those deficiencies in coming sessions — possibly this year — and with the same swiftness with which these reforms were passed this year.

All involved, including the public, will need to have patience while the details, policies and standards are put in place.

But great interest and support for the goals of these reforms remain: efforts to ensure justice to the state’s diverse communities; reduce the costs of incarceration and find better outcomes for those with substance abuse problems; end penalties that criminalize poverty; track, understand and prevent crime; and better train, prepare and guide officers who serve in a demanding and vital profession.

Lovick, noting the words of a fellow legislator, state Rep. Jessica Bateman, D-Olympia, said the reforms were meant to ensure that law enforcement serves the public: “We shouldn’t have to hurt people to help them,” he said, recalling Bateman’s quote. “We should be in the business of giving them a hand up instead of handcuffs on.”

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