Washington’s new police reform laws have good intentions and hazardous consequences

Yakima Police Officer Shot, Washington
Credit: Emily Goodell, KAPP-KVEW

YAKIMA, Wash. — Law enforcement officers in Washington state are struggling to understand their new responsibilities after nearly a dozen police reform laws went into effect on Sunday.

Washington legislators have said the new laws are intended to hold police accountable and address racial inequities in the justice system, but police chiefs and sheriffs across the state are concerned that the laws intended to help people will end up hurting them instead.

“I think the people who are doing this have good intentions,” Yakima Police Chief Matt Murray said. “I also think there are consequences that they may not have considered.”

Murray said the new legislation placed tight restrictions on using any kind of “physical force” — which is not specifically defined — on calls where a crime has not been committed and risk decertification if they do.

Because physical force isn’t clearly defined, law enforcement officers are left trying to figure out whether it means using lethal or nonlethal weapons or just grabbing someone’s arm to prevent them from leaving a scene. Specifically, House Bill 1310 states:

Law enforcement may use physical force against a person when necessary to protect against criminal conduct where there is probable cause to make an arrest; effect an arrest; prevent an escape; or protect against an imminent threat of bodily injury to a peace officer or another person.

Murray said 9-1-1 calls not involving a crime — medical emergencies, welfare checks and those where someone is under the influence — can become dangerous quickly and that if officers are unable to protect themselves and others, they may risk their safety and their careers.

“There are some differences, but the majority of Washington police and law enforcement agencies are all saying the same thing: there are now cases we won’t respond to,” Murray said. “This is definitely going to impact the way we deliver service and people are probably going to be surprised.”

No more Washington police response to welfare checks

People often call 9-1-1 to ask officers to do a welfare check: to look in on family, friends and neighbors when they’re concerned about their safety and can’t get ahold of them.

“Somebody calls and says, ‘Hey, my aunt lives in your town. I’m in Wisconsin. I haven’t heard from her a week. Can you check and see if she’s okay?'” Murray said. “That’s not a crime, so we won’t be responding to those.”

Murray said it’s unclear at this point whether firefighters or EMS personnel will be sent out to check or if people will no longer get a response on welfare check calls.

“Cities across the state are struggling with that answer to that question,” Murray said. “I think one of the unintended consequences that people need to be aware of is there was no system set up to handle all this.”

New limits to police helping runaway juveniles

Murray said while running away from home isn’t a crime, runaway juveniles are a problem in Yakima and are often in real danger while they’re away from home.

“We have gangs that are looking for runaway 14-year-old girls and they don’t mean to do good,” Murray said.

Murray previously said that when a parent called and reported their child as a runaway, police officers who were able to find the child could take them into custody and return them to their parents. Under the new law, police can still respond and go looking for the runaway, but can’t do much once they’re found.

“The most we can do once we find them is ask the parents to come and recover them, but if the juvenile refuses to come with us refuses to go with the parent, there is no alternative: we just leave them, which is going to be mind-boggling to people,” Murray said.

(Almost) no more vehicle pursuits allowed

House Bill 1054 changes the threshold for officers to pursue a fleeing vehicle from reasonable suspicion (a hunch) to probable cause (evidence), which effectively prohibits nearly all vehicle pursuits.

“If you call me and you say, ‘Oh my gosh, my niece just got kidnapped from my house and there’s a white guy in a red truck that just left,” Murray said. “If I’m driving there and I see a white male and a red truck last week, I pull that car over; this week, I have to have probable cause to chase him.”

Earlier this year, several teenagers were involved in a gang-related, drive-by shooting near Garfield Elementary that left a 16-year-old boy with gunshot wounds. Police were able to take them into custody after a lieutenant recognized the car and pursued them.

Had this law been in place then, Murray said police officers could not have pursued them based on the matching vehicle description and they may not have been apprehended at all.

“In that very scenario, we would have had to just let them go: a carload of kids with guns who just shot somebody near an elementary school,” Murray said.

HB 1054 also prohibits shooting at a moving vehicle, the use of chokeholds and neck restraints, and “no-knock warrants.”

Ban on military equipment restricts use of non-lethal weapons

Under House Bill 1054, Washington law enforcement agencies can no longer have any military equipment, including:

Firearms and ammunition of .50 caliber or greater, machine guns, armed helicopters, armed or armored drones, armed vessels, armed vehicles, armed aircraft, tanks, long range acoustic hailing devices, rockets, rocket launchers, bayonets, grenades, missiles, directed energy systems, and electromagnetic spectrum weapons.

Any military equipment already in their possession must be inventoried and a list sent to the Washington State Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs and then returned or destroyed by Dec. 31, 2022.

Police can still participate in a federal military equipment surplus program to get medical supplies, unarmed vehicles, protective gear and other items that don’t fall into any of the categories of military equipment prohibited under the new law.

Kittitas County Sheriff’s Office spokesperson Chris Whitsett said the law had the unintended consequence of banning police from having military firearms used with non-lethal beanbag rounds, which police use to deescalate situations that could otherwise become lethal.

“WASPC could have told them in a heartbeat that this was going to be a problem,” Whitsett said. “It’s an unfortunate instance where — because of the haste and the manner in which these laws were passed — we think that our community is actually going to be put at more risk.”

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