I don’t know if you’ve ever tried to read a piece of legislation, but often they are a painfully incoherent collection of legalese and big words most of us can’t make heads or tails out of. Sometimes the authors really can’t either.
A few weeks ago, after the newly-minted police reform laws took effect, I wrote that it was going to be confusing and that absent a lawyer on the call trying to decide if the officers can act, or even respond, they often won’t.
Within days, right after a murder in Pierce County, a suspect was seen and described to responding officers, including a K9 and his handler. It was discussed and determined they could not pursue the guy because they had not yet established probable cause. Oh, they had lots of reasonable suspicion, which was the previous standard, but woke minds in Olympia changed that.
Around our state, city and county, lawyers were trying to decipher these new standards, and here the CEO of Cascade Community Healthcare wrote a piece on what effect it was going to have getting cooperation with law enforcement in a mostly community care environment. Community care was something cops have done for years.
Recently, the not-so-police-friendly state Attorney General Bob Ferguson concluded that all the concerns expressed by all the other attorneys, and many chiefs and sheriffs in the state, were misplaced. Nothing in the new laws prevented officers from responding to non-crimes, his office reported.
The author of the new law, Rep. Roger Goodman, reacted saying “see, now we have the attorney general's guidance on this. We want them to respond and ‘what matters is what happens when they get there.’”
This guy’s sharp.
Of course what matters is what happens when they get there, but with all the confusing language in this law, the only one on the hook is the cop who is there. It requires them to exhaust all “available de-escalation tactics, to consider characteristics and conditions of the person to whom force is being applied, and to use minimal amount of force necessary to bring someone into custody.”
That folks is a mouthful of utter nonsense. Consider characteristics and conditions? What does that even mean?
Reasonable force and force necessary to effect an arrest has always been the standard. What has changed are all the requirements on the officer who has to decipher all the lawyer language, ripe with opportunity to make the officer liable if in the confusion they make a mistake.
Another author, Rep. Johnson, says he realizes there is some language that needs to change but notes there is a pinky promise (my words not his) opinion the AG has rendered, not to sanction any officer including decertifying them, if they act.
That opinion and a promise from anyone in Olympia is about as trustworthy as our governor's promise not to raise taxes until he was elected.
I’m told that while this legislation was being considered, these committees heard from a number of law enforcement professionals about the potential problems it would create but were so smart they didn't have to listen.
I read where the Clark County sheriff went so far as to note the authors of these new laws did not “constructively collaborate” with law enforcement groups.
In a recent column, Sen. John Braun and Rep. J.T. Wilcox wrote that law enforcement's hands were tied. “They tried to engage in the process knowing it was not likely to result in substantially improved policy — they were instead hoping for the least harmful bills possible, knowing the majority (Dems) could pass whatever they wanted. And that’s what they did.”
There are already examples of the results of this poorly thought out and written piece of work and there will be more.
In the meantime, don’t be surprised if cops seem reluctant to engage or run toward the danger in ways you used to see. It’s likely they are on the phone to the AG asking for his pinky promise not to come after them if they do.
John McCroskey was Lewis County sheriff from 1995 to 2005. He lives outside Chehalis, and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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