I’m told Clark County Sheriff’s Sgt. Jeremy Brown had strong opinions about the new state laws that are forcing major changes in how law enforcement officers do their jobs.
As a state senator, I would have appreciated listening to his concerns. Unfortunately, I know about them only from a eulogy given at his memorial by John Horch, the county’s chief criminal deputy. That’s because Sgt. Brown was murdered two days before the more restrictive policing laws passed this year by the Legislature’s majority Democrats took effect July 25.
One of the new laws, created by the passage of House Bill 1310, puts strict new limits on when officers may use any level of force. The law created by HB 1054 restricted law enforcement tactics, such as vehicle pursuits and equipment. The Senate Bill 5051 law brought new background check requirements for officers, more opportunities to decertify officers, and a heavier state hand in other personnel decisions that should be made locally.
Law enforcement officials clearly told our Democratic colleagues in the Legislature how creating these laws would hinder their ability to protect the public, themselves and crime suspects.
“The public reasonably expects that law enforcement officers will run toward dangerous situations. (HB) 1310 makes that expectation no longer reasonable,” a representative of the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs (WASPC) said during a committee hearing in January. “We sincerely hope your decision does not result in further harm to crime victims and contribute to the public’s erosion of trust in their law enforcement agencies.”
The negative predictions were quickly proven accurate in news reports from across our state. Our Democratic colleagues responded by professing surprise that their self-described effort to “transform how police show up in our communities” was in fact causing law enforcement agencies to suspend pursuits and searches for murder suspects, jeopardizing public safety.
A newspaper story suggests the suspects arrested in connection with Sgt. Brown’s murder had been involved in a vehicular pursuit earlier in the day, when they were only suspects in a burglary. If so, was the pursuit called off because the agency involved was among the many across Washington that reportedly changed their policies early, in anticipation of the new restrictions? I trust an investigation will determine what happened and whether the “reforms” had a role. Either way, how many pursuits will end before they begin, now that nearly all of them need to have prior authorization from a supervisor?
The Democrats’ attempt at damage control included suggesting officers had been misled and were overreacting. They also dismissed the legitimate concern that first responders and hospital staff can no longer count on a law enforcement presence to provide security on the scene of an emergency or in an examination room.
At the same time, however, they asked the state attorney general for what’s called an advisory opinion, to ensure law enforcement has “clear guidance.”
The fact that Democrats reached for a lifeline from the executive branch so soon after their new law took effect proves how poorly that law was written in the first place. And their claim about working with law enforcement on equipment restrictions is easily debunked by the fact that in banning .50-caliber weapons, the Democrats made it illegal for police to fire non-lethal “beanbags.”
No wonder Clark County Sheriff Chuck Atkins recently noted how legislators who created the new laws did not “constructively collaborate” with law enforcement groups.
“Almost every police officer I know wants to improve and find better ways to perform our jobs to keep you safe,” said John Horch, in the eulogy for his friend. “Since we’re on the front line, listen to us, hear what we need to be successful in our duties and stop the blame.”
All of this is happening as our state is seeing a jump in violent crime, according to WASPC’s recently released crime data report for 2020, and as another law created by the majority side this year basically decriminalizes the possession of heroin, methamphetamine and other hard drugs.
Gov. Jay Inslee has flatly refused to bring legislators back into session this year to fix these failing policies. I worry about what’s in store next for our law enforcement officers, first responders and the people they serve.
Sen. Lynda Wilson, R-Vancouver, served on the Senate Law and Justice Committee from 2017-2020. She is Republican leader on the Senate Ways and Means Committee, and prime sponsor of Senate Bill 5407, which would significantly increase the penalty for stealing a firearm.
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