Depending on their interpretations of the state’s new police reforms, law-enforcement agencies are responding to 911 calls with vastly different equipment and tactics, sometimes putting public safety at risk.
Some disagreeing law-enforcement leaders should stop obfuscating over the laws and put safety of their communities ahead of their political agendas.
Meanwhile, one statewide police group is demonstrating constructive leadership and should be listened to.
The Washington Fraternal Order of Police, which represents more than 2,500 law-enforcement officers, decided early on to support reform, and it continues to play a positive role in implementing the changes.
The laws, passed by the Legislature in the wake of the George Floyd murder and community outcry, dramatically changed many aspects of policing, including when officers can use physical force and respond to calls that don’t involve criminal activity. The laws took effect July 25.
Considered among the nation’s most ambitious police reforms, these efforts strengthen accountability, help undo racial injustice and reduce unnecessary violence by law enforcement.
Some police agencies have responded positively. For one, interim Seattle Police Chief Adrian Diaz said the legislation mirrors current de-escalation practices, and there is no way agencies should ignore calls for service.
Meanwhile, other police leaders say officers are prevented from doing everything possible to track down criminals and make arrests, and they expressed fear that officers would be held legally liable for physically restraining someone experiencing a mental health crisis.
Federal Way Police Chief Andy Hwang posted on Facebook that “There will be some calls we will no longer respond to at all.” Troopers with the Washington State Patrol have been telling drivers that reforms won’t work, and Kelso Police Chief Darr Kirk predicted the new laws are going to lead to more crime.
The Cowlitz County Sheriff put out a press release decrying that it could no longer use beanbag shotguns, while the Auburn Police Department says the opposite, contending such less lethal weapons are allowed, a position shared by FOP.
The Washington Attorney General’s Office issued a memo on Aug. 2 clarifying that the new law addressing guidelines for when force can be used: It does not prevent officers from responding to mental health and other community welfare calls, as some chiefs have maintained.
Attorney General Bob Ferguson should do more and issue a formal legal opinion soon. Without that, the Legislature will likely have to make clarifications in its next session in January. Until then, departments are likely to adopt widely different interpretations drafted by their own city attorneys and other lawyers.
“You have a gazillion different legal advisers and a gazillion different agencies pushing different things out there, so there’s a lot of uncertainty with these new bills,” said Algona Police Chief James Schrimpsher, a vice president of the Washington Fraternal Order of Police. “With uncertainty comes a lot of angst.”
The FOP has been meeting with law-enforcement agencies across the state, bringing along their own attorneys to explain the laws. The organization agrees with the AG’s memo that nothing prevents officers from responding to calls, including calls asking for help but that don’t allege criminal activity.
All the group can do is advise departments, and disagreements occur.
“People are inherently uncomfortable with change. These are opportunities where we can provide some clarity,” said Marco Monteblanco, FOP president and Kennewick Police detective. “Everybody has a stake in this and we’re going to get it right.”
As these issues resolve and implementation continues, the FOP deserves recognition for working with advocates, representing their members and seeking to improve their profession.