As police-reform laws go into effect, sheriffs and activists disagree on their effectiveness

·9 min read

Jul. 23—A group of 20 sheriffs and police chiefs expressed concern at a news conference Thursday about police reform legislation they say will hurt their ability to do their job, while community activists and families affected by police violence say this should only be the start of accountability.

The leaders of law enforcement agencies from across Eastern and Central Washington said during the press conference at CenterPlace Regional Event Center in Spokane Valley that the legislation will hinder their ability to respond to mental health and domestic violence calls.

In response, activists and bill sponsors said nothing in any of the police reform bills prevents officers from responding to these calls, though it sets new rules for what officers can do once they are there.

Rep. Jesse Johnson, D-Federal Way, the co-sponsor of several police reform bills that passed the Legislature this year, said he wanted these laws to increase police accountability and address historic racial bias against communities more likely to be on the receiving end of police violence.

The Washington state attorney general will give a formal opinion about parts of the law both police and lawmakers agreed were unclear, Johnson said. These concerns include a ban on .50 caliber weapons and new standards for whether officers can take someone to a treatment center during mental health calls.

"As long as they understand our legislative intent ... that will help clear up those questions," Johnson said.

Still, Grant County Sheriff Tom Jones said some of the bills that passed last legislative session are so restrictive some victims won't get their day in court.

"At the end of the day, it's going to change how we do law enforcement," Jones said.

He said there seems to be a difference in the intent of the law from legislators versus how it will actually have to be applied based on the contents of the bill, specifically citing a bill about police use of force.

Police have also expressed concern about a bill that banned chokeholds and vascular neck restraints, as well as certain uses of tear gas and military-grade equipment.

Here's a look at where lawmakers and advocates disagree with law enforcement on the new laws — and where they see eye to eye.

Can police respond to mental health and domestic violence calls under this legislation?

During a press conference Thursday afternoon, Spokane Police Department Chief Craig Meidl said the new laws could make it harder for police to de-escalate situations that involve someone suffering from mental illness.

Though they may not have committed a crime, Meidl said people who show signs of a mental or psychotic break can be considered a disturbance to themselves and the community.

Meidl said police don't want to escalate these situations, but sometimes reasonable force is needed to restrain a person suffering from mental illness so officers can call their families or ask for behavioral health services.

"Mental health is a true medical problem that we may not be able to go to anymore," Spokane County Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich said at the press conference, referring to part of the bill saying officers need to leave if no apparent crime was committed on the scene.

The law now states that when available, police on a call must exhaust all de-escalation tactics. These include creating physical distance, calling for backup or mental health professionals when available and taking as much time as needed to avoid using force.

According to the bill's text, officers have to consider a subject's alcohol or substance intake, mental illness and physical conditions like pregnancy or disability when determining the reasonable approach.

"There's nothing in the new laws that prevent officers from responding to any crime," Johnson said. "The laws are about what they do once they get there."

One part of the law uses the term "imminent threat" as the threshold for an officer to take someone to get mental or behavioral health treatment, but Johnson said this directly conflicts with the Involuntary Treatment Act.

An imminent threat is defined as the intent and ability to cause serious injury to themselves or others, while the Involuntary Treatment Act specifies a "likelihood of serious harm" as reason to institutionalize someone against their will, according to the bill's text.

Johnson said he agreed with law enforcement this language was confusing. The attorney general will review this discrepancy and include it in their formal opinion, Johnson said.

Another part of the law also requires police to have probable cause in order to use force, meaning they need "more evidence for than against [and] a reasonable belief that a crime has or is being committed," according to the state definition of probable cause.

Police don't have to get a warrant to determine probable cause, Meidl said.

"First of all, in terms of the law, probable cause is a pretty low threshold," Johnson said. "Having this standard, rather than reasonable suspicion, makes it a lot more clear for the public what the police are allowed to do once they show up to a scene."

Knezovich said local police officers already use effective de-escalation tactics, and their presence at a scene has a "calming effect" for both the public and first responders.

Kurtis Robinson, vice president and political action chair for the state area conference at the Spokane NAACP, said high-profile incidents that resulted in the death of unarmed citizens in Washington show a different reality.

"Officers have not had to ask that question. The discomfort there is that they've always had so much authority and so much latitude, yet zero accountability. It only makes sense that there's angst about that," Robinson said.

Whitman County Sheriff Brett Myers said recent legislation will affect each agency differently, but they're all concerned.

"Unfortunately, I think the legislative bills that came through didn't recognize the great work that law enforcement already does in the state of Washington," he said. "I think we're going to have to do our best to work within the parameters that have now been established."

If a crime was committed at a scene, the law states officers can only use force necessary to make the arrest, prevent an escape or prevent serious harm to the officer, the subject or the public, according to the bill's text.

The new standard deviates from the national "reasonable suspicion" standard set in the 1968 Supreme Court Case Terry v. Ohio.

"With reasonable suspicion, that's where we see that implicit bias where it ends up being Black and Brown communities who are pursued and pulled over more often," Johnson said.

Can officers still use less-lethal munitions?

In one of the new laws, lawmakers banned the delivery of military-grade equipment and .50 caliber weapons.

Knezovich said during the press conference that the law unintentionally included less-lethal beanbag rounds.

"They say we need the capability to deliver less-lethal munitions, it's mandated, and then beanbags are actually mentioned in the law," he said. "How do I now have that capability of less-lethal when you outlaw the delivery system?"

Johnson said he agreed the language for the .50-caliber weapons was unclear.

The Washington Fraternal Order of Police, a police union that showed support for police reform during the Legislature, said in a press release they also thought the law was confusing.

"Devices like bean bag or sponge rounds, although exceeding the .50 caliber metric, are clearly the type of less-lethal alternatives that lawmakers want to encourage. Without these tools, officers are left with only their firearms to respond in situations where de-escalation tactics are needed," Marco Monteblanco, the order's president, said in the release.

This is another part of the law the attorney general will give a formal opinion on after reviewing the intention of the law, Johnson said.

Robinson said he still supported the ban on other military-grade weapons, which includes armed vehicles, machine guns and most grenades.

Instead of purchasing and using more weapons, Robinson said, city and law enforcement officials should focus on investing in historically underserved communities.

"We're dealing with populations that have been historically ostracized, hyper-policed, yet what we've not done is go to those populations and say, 'Let's invest into your community for 10 years, and let's dial back on police rolling in all the time,' " Robinson said.

Can officers still use tear gas?

One of the new laws now limits instances in which officers can use tear gas, but the law does not ban officers from using chloroacetophenone (CN tear gas) or 2-chlorobenzalmalononitrile (CS gas).

Knezovich said during the press conference a sheriff must now ask the county commissioners to use gas in a riot. According to the bill's text, officers can use tear gas during a riot, barricade or hostage situation as long as they have permission from the supervising officer. This does not include pepper spray, which officers can still use while on their regular calls.

"I have the ability to call all forces necessary to put down any riot or insurrection in this county, regardless of what jurisdiction it happens in, and I intend to do so," Knezovich said.

If a riot starts at a correctional facility or jail, officers will have to get permission from the highest elected official in their jurisdiction to deploy CN or CS gas, according to the bill's text.

The bill also specifies a process officers must follow before they use tear gas.

First, they have to exhaust all de-escalating alternatives to using the gas, according to the bill's text. Then, they have to get permission from their supervising officer or the acting supervisor if the agency is short-staffed.

Once tear gas has been decided as the best course of action, officers have to announce to the subjects they intend to deploy it. They also have to give the subjects time and space to disperse before deploying, the bill states.

The bill also bans most military-grade grenades, but police can still use stun grenades, sting grenades, smoke grenades, tear gas grenades or blast balls.

The attorney general will provide guidance on concerns over these bills, but Johnson said it will take a while to address all questions brought forward by law enforcement.

When will the bills go into effect?

Police are preparing to put the new laws into place this Sunday.

According to the text, by July 1, 2022, the attorney general will publish model policies on law enforcement's use-of-force and de-escalation tactics that are consistent with the bills.

By Dec. 1, 2022, law enforcement agencies must adopt the policies or submit to the attorney general how their current policies already follow these new laws, according to the use-of-force bill.

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