By the time the state Legislature convened in January for the 2021 session, our state and nation had endured months of pain and public outcry over a series of high-profile police killings of members of communities of color, including some of our neighbors here in Washington.
People turned out across the state to demonstrate against the killings of George Floyd, Manuel Ellis, Charleena Lyles, John T. Williams and many others. The police response to the demonstrations unfortunately exacerbated a deepening distrust by the very communities that the police are sworn to protect and serve.
There was bipartisan agreement that the legislature needed to make changes to rebuild trust between police and community members. Last summer and fall, the families of victims, community advocates, lawmakers and law enforcement worked together to propose a comprehensive set of policies to address the issues that had been laid bare by the killings and protests, including:
· Banning chokeholds, neck restraints, no-knock warrants and limiting the use of tear gas and high-speed pursuits.
· Establishing a statewide standard for police officer use of force and requiring de-escalation as a first response.
· Establishing a duty for officers to intervene and report when fellow officers use force illegally.
· Requiring that police electronically record interrogations of suspects in custody.
· Collecting and publishing data on law enforcement use-of-force incidents.
· Making it easier to discipline and fire officers who abuse the public trust, rather than allowing them to move to other police agencies.
On July 25, these and several other changes took effect across the state, and the hard work of implementing the laws began. We expect that rebuilding trust between police and the community will take years of continued, intentional effort and diligent collaboration. Legislative leaders are listening hard to understand what additional changes we should consider in the 2022 session.
Unfortunately, some politicians and law enforcement leaders are choosing to misrepresent the new policies by claiming the policies would reduce officers’ ability to do their job. [“Legislative Democrats’ attempt at police reform puts communities at risk,” Aug. 2, Opinion]. Does it seem likely that bills that went into effect only a week ago are responsible for the increase in assaults on officers or the increased number of murders — both trends that began in 2016? Or for the large number of officers who left the Seattle Police Department in 2020? The steps these bills take to restore trust between law enforcement and the community are an answer to those trends, not a cause.
As a recent article in Crosscut detailed, law enforcement officers still have the ability to respond to mental-health calls, pursue fleeing suspects, approach and question people, and, if necessary, defend themselves.
It is true that law enforcement officers will not be able to detain people by force based on vague suspicions, start car chases over low-level crime, use military equipment, use chokeholds or neck restraints, or skip de-escalation efforts.
It’s also true that our state is investing heavily in new models of behavioral health crisis response and treatment, part of a generational shift away from the failed war on drugs and era of mass incarceration.
Last week a local police chief lamented on broadcast news that the new police accountability laws in Washington represented a “culture shift” in policing.
We believe that’s true. These new policies do indeed represent a culture shift that is vital for law enforcement to do its work effectively. That culture shift represents a major step forward in public safety for all Washingtonians, and especially for communities of color that have waited for equal justice for far too long.