Kennewick Police reintroduce less-than-lethal measures to curb crime under updated reform laws

KENNEWICK, Wash. — One of the biggest items on the list for Washington legislator’s this year was police reform laws.

When several bills took effect in July of 2021, law enforcement agencies across the state expressed how it negatively impacted their ability to complete their daily tasks.

One of those agencies was the Kennewick Police Department (KPD), which was not the first, or last, agency to speak up on the issue.

“I think the intent was noble,” said Lieutenant Jason Kiel, Public Information Officer with KPD. “But the unintended consequences were not the desire of our legislature.”

Three bills ultimately limited how Washington law enforcement agencies could interact with potential suspects, and when.

House Bill 2037 is one of the biggest rules that many officers say limit the way they can do the daily functions of their jobs. When the bill was first introduced, many law enforcement agencies were hesitant when interacting with potential reported suspects—often opting not to pursue them or use any physical force because the bill did not define them.

Now, the bill has those definitions.

RELATED: What was approved during Washington’s 2022 legislative session?

“Up until this bill was signed, force was just unwanted touching,” Kiel said. “If we went and even put a hand on somebody, it was considered a use of force because there was no definition of it.”

House Bill 2037 also defines a myriad of other terms, such as necessary, deadly force, immediate threat, and reasonable care, for example.

The bill will now allow officers to pursue a suspect when they have reasonable suspicion, as long as it’s on foot. It also allows some amounts of physical force.

Another bill that’s made some drastic changes this year is House Bill 1719, which redefines what ‘military equipment’ is. For KPD, that means they can re-introduce their less-lethal weapon back into their arsenal: rubber bullets.

“Part of the de-escalation legislation is that we create distance as well,” Kiel said. “We can now again create distance and still be able to use some of the tools that we have so that we can safely resolve a situation.”

Days after the new police reform laws were introduced in July of 2021, KPD encountered a woman wielding two kitchen knives who slashed nine of their patrol car tires and fled down a busy street in Kennewick.

RELATED: Kennewick Police say woman with knives could have been contained faster

At the time, the police department did not have a replacement tool for their rubber bullets and had to call a neighboring agency, the Pasco Police Department, and borrow their pepper ball gun. This tool, which was allowed under the new bill, was used to apprehend the woman.

“She would never have even gotten onto the street because we’d really be able to take care of that situation right away and increase public safety,” Kiel said.

Now, KPD has its 37-millimeter platform in every police vehicle currently on patrol. Tri-Cities Regional SWAT Team has reintroduced the platform as well.

But that doesn’t mean they’re going to use it in every encounter. KPD does have a de-escalation policy and has implemented one even before the police reform bills were introduced at the state level in 2020.

KPD has pepper spray, tasers, pepper ball guns that they purchased in the last year, as well as the 37-millimeter platform.

“We’re going to use our voice first,” Kiel said. “If that doesn’t work, then we’re going to this.”

READ: KPD says little known about stabbing incident due to new reform law

Each tool does something different and allows officers to do their jobs in different ways.

“It all depends on circumstance, and sometimes it’s not a ladder,” Kiel said. “[But] the legislation calls for de-escalation in everything that we do we do before we use force.”

A third bill that majorly impacted law enforcement agencies last year: House Bill 1054, which limits when a vehicle pursuit by a law enforcement agency is allowed.

This bill was not amended in the 2022 legislative session, with lawmakers saying they’re looking for a “goldilocks” language before they move forward. Currently, any proposed legislation to change this bill is under Senate Bill 5919.

“There’s continued dialogue that’s happening with legislators and all the interested groups,” Kiel said. “There’s another side of this talking about crime-fighting and the importance of that, because we want to live in a safe community, and it’s really, really important that we do that.”

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