September 27, 2021

Washington police say new laws limit pursuits, arrests

3 min read

Washington police claim new legislation tying their tactics to probable cause will effectively tie their hands in answering urgent calls.

Among the police bills that Washington lawmakers passed earlier in 2021 were House Bills 1054 and 1310. Both took effect on Monday; law enforcement says they will make their jobs harder.

In a statement this week, Steve Strachan, executive director of the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs, said that the bills could tie officers’ hands and leave suspects free to flee.

“The policing reforms may have the positive impact of reducing the number of violent interactions between law enforcement and the public,” Strachan said. “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.”

HB 1054 bans chokeholds, neck restraints and limits vehicle pursuits to instances in which officers have probable cause to presume a crime is in progress. It also leaves the use of tear gas up to an elected official to authorize and bans the use of “military-style weapons” that includes shotguns that fire less-than-lethal munitions like beanbag rounds. Officers testifying last session said the bill’s language could encourage officers to resort to lethal force much earlier.

The other bill, HB 1310, codifies existing police department policies of resorting to de-escalation tactics in all initial encounters. However, it also designates the use of any force as a last resort in lieu of probable cause or knowledge a crime is being committed. In addition, the bill broadly interprets force to include placing handcuffs on a person, which law enforcement officials claim could also leave suspects free to flee crime scenes.

The two bills were inspired by the murder of George Floyd and grassroots efforts to stop police brutality and bias policing. Advocates say the reforms were long overdue, including state Rep. Jesse Johnson, D-Federal Way, who introduced HB 1054.

“It will take time for law enforcement to adjust to our state’s new police accountability laws, but these changes were made for a reason,” Johnson said. “The level of excessive force used by some police officers, especially in Black and Brown communities, is unacceptable.”

Washington does not keep statewide data on the use of force by police, but cities like Seattle continue to see racial disparities in police use of force. A 54-page report completed this year by the Center for Policing Equity, a Los Angeles-based social justice and policing think tank, found Black people were seven times more likely to be subjected to force by Seattle police than white people per capita from 2015 to 2019. One bill signed into law by Gov. Jay Inslee this year will set up such a police use of force database to track such racial disparities.

Law enforcement agencies around Washington speculated HB 1310 could reduce the types of calls police can and will respond to. These include wellness checks and enforcing the Involuntary Treatment Act, allowing anyone age 13 or older to be detained for a mental health evaluation if they meet certain criteria.

“These new laws change how police in WA State respond to crime altogether,” the Arlington Police Department wrote on its Facebook page. “They may also limit our ability to assist in community caretaking functions.”

Johnson insists HB 1310 will not limit officers’ responsibilities, only their tactics. He adds that amendments to the bills are not out of the question.

“HB 1310 did not amend the Involuntary Treatment Act, and it was certainly not our intent to impair law enforcement’s ability to respond to behavioral health calls,” Johnson said. “Nothing in the law prevents law enforcement from responding to any calls, but rather to respond using de-escalation and less lethal enforcement of the law.”

Police groups have reached out to state Attorney General Bob Ferguson’s office for further clarification on the two bills. No Washington lawmaker has requested an opinion on the bills. However, one will be given upon request, a spokesperson for the office told The Center Square.

“We have not yet received a request for an Attorney General Opinion from any legislator, or anyone else authorized to request one,” said communications director Brionna Aho. “So the ball is in their court.”

This article was originally posted on Washington police say new laws limit pursuits, arrests

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