The Redmond resident who took a drive, forgot where she left her car and ventured into a stranger’s home looking for a family member was no stranger to Susie Kroll.
For more than a year, Kroll, a community support administrator with the Redmond Police Department, has tried to help the woman, who’s showing symptoms of Alzheimer’s including memory loss. She’s driven her car into bushes or trees, according to Kroll, but always refuses help.
For the licensed mental health professional who accompanies police officers on calls, this latest incident raised the stakes. She said the person could be considered “gravely disabled,” a legal threshold that would allow authorities to involuntarily detain her for an evaluation of their mental health.
But law enforcement agencies in cities like Redmond — citing a new law that spells out specific instances where an officer can use physical force, which they say contains vague language — are no longer intervening physically in cases like these.
“I clearly see this person potentially in a dangerous situation,” Kroll said. “But we cannot get her to a hospital.”
This summer, a skirmish is raging over Washington’s new law governing when police can use force.
Passed by the Legislature this spring and signed by Gov. Jay Inslee, House Bill 1310 was part of an ambitious package of police-reform measures, in the wake of sustained demonstrations against the killing of people of color by law enforcement.
HB 1310 creates a statewide standard for when officers can use force, which it defines as four specific scenarios: to protect against criminal conduct where there is probable cause for an arrest; to make an arrest; to prevent an escape; or to protect against an imminent threat of injury to an officer, another person, or the person against whom force is being used.
Law enforcement agencies and police groups — some of whom opposed the new law — say the language lacks clarity about whether officers can put their hands on people experiencing a behavioral health crisis, or even when police can respond to calls.
Even when they feel they can’t intervene physically, Redmond police — and the Seattle Police Department — are still responding to behavioral health calls.
But this summer, other law enforcement agencies — including sheriff’s offices in Clark, Yakima and Thurston counties, as well as the Yakima and Olympia police departments — announced they won’t even respond to some mental health calls.
Democratic lawmakers and the Attorney General’s Office have pushed back, saying the new law does not stop officers from responding to mental health calls, or from putting their hands on people to transport them to a hospital.
Sen. Jamie Pedersen, D-Seattle, described some agencies’ reluctance to even respond to service calls as part of a “campaign to try to undermine confidence in the reforms that we did.”
The state Attorney General’s Office is in the process of crafting a formal opinion on whether HB 1310 impacts Washington’s involuntary detention law. That document could potentially reassure some law enforcement agencies.
Under the state’s Involuntary Treatment Act, an individual in crisis can be committed by the civil courts to get treatment if they are deemed to be gravely disabled or a danger to others or themselves. Frontline workers like designated crisis responders can make the initial decision whether someone should be brought to a medical facility for an evaluation.
For now, front-line mental health workers — and people in severe crisis — are reckoning with the fallout.
Without a way to get people to a hospital to be checked out — and from there, the possibility of an involuntary detention for evaluation or treatment — people in crisis are being left to deteriorate and potentially harm themselves or others.
Meanwhile, some front-line responders are having to put themselves at risk without police protection.
Snohomish County crisis responders recently went out to evaluate the health of a person believed to have had a gun at their home, said Carola Schmid, a supervisor at Snohomish County Crisis Services.
“And law enforcement said, ‘Well, we’ll be a block away, and if they point a gun at you, call 911,'” Schmid said. “And that is not a safe way to do our jobs.”
Debate over language
A memo last month from the state Attorney General’s Office, which was released by Democratic lawmakers, said HB 1310 “does not prohibit peace officers from responding to community caretaking calls, including mental health calls.”
Democratic lawmakers, including Rep. Jesse Johnson, D-Federal Way and sponsor of the bill, said the law doesn’t get in the way of the state’s involuntary detention law itself.
“So our officers can still transport individuals” to get a medical evaluation “and they will not be held liable for physical force,” Johnson said.
But those assurances have not been enough for law enforcement groups or agencies.
In the case of Redmond, Police Chief Darrell Lowe decided the department would continue to respond to calls.
“If called, we come, period. I believe that is our duty and obligation,” Lowe wrote in an email. “Yes, the laws have changed and we may not be able to do things as we previously did, but that person who called is still in need of help and that is what we do.”
Lowe decided on that approach after consulting with Redmond’s mayor and city attorneys, and after speaking with command staff, and with lawmakers who worked on the legislation.
He has concerns about the vagueness of terms like “imminent threat” in the new law, which is a key part of one of its four scenarios where officers can use force. To Lowe and some others, that lack of clarity could haunt officers after an incident, if there are allegations an officer acted improperly.
“No officer wants to be the test case for what that means,” Lowe wrote.
The concern about the law’s impact on behavioral health calls was raised at least once during a floor debate of HB 1310.
Sen. Jeff Holy, R-Cheney, sponsored an amendment, supported by key law enforcement, to insert a provision allowing physical force by officers responding to “community caretaking” or to parts of state law that reference the Involuntary Treatment Act.
“I tried to keep asserting the potential consequences or the unintended effects of some of the legislation that some of the sponsors were putting through,” said Holy, a former Spokane police officer.
But Democrats rejected it, saying it was too broadly worded.
“If we had included the language that created a general exception for acting in a community caretaking capacity, try to imagine what would be left of the bill?” said Pedersen, chairperson of the Senate Law and Justice Committee, said recently.
Pedersen and Johnson said they are open to tweaking the law next year to make it clear that HB 1310 doesn’t override the state’s involuntary detention law.
With some agencies not taking calls, dispatch operators are being put in confusing situations, mental health advocates say.
And people are being left to deteriorate to the point where they can cause harm, said Jessica Shook, president of the Washington Association of Designated Crisis Responders.
Those responders are the mental health professionals authorized to evaluate someone and decide whether they could be detained under the involuntary treatment law.
Because of the disagreements over the new law, people are “committing crimes, they’re assaulting someone else, they’re getting themselves in trouble with the law, and they’re ending up in jail,” Shook said. “We are seeing this.”
The developments also blindsided some mental health workers, and Shook said her association had no input into the debate over the bill.
“I didn’t know about this bill until after it was signed by the governor,” Shook said.
Shook works as a crisis manager across Thurston and Mason counties. There, law enforcement agencies are accompanying crisis workers “on a case-by-case basis,” according to Shook, and “the majority of the time they do not accompany us.”
While Seattle police are still responding to behavioral health calls, Chief Adrian Diaz said in a statement last month that officers are expected to disengage in interactions involving nonemergent mental health orders unless one of the new law’s four use-of-force scenarios applies.
Nonemergent orders are issued after a crisis responder concludes someone has a likelihood of future danger — one that is not imminent — and petitions the courts to get them potentially evaluated.
In many cases, an officer using force in a mental health crisis is often just guiding someone by the elbow to get them over to the gurney of an ambulance, Shook said.
“I have been doing this kind of work since 2007 … and the number of times law enforcement has had to put hands on someone in a violent or assertive way is very, very small,” Shook said.
The disruption to their work has weighed on mental health workers, said Schmid, the Snohomish County crisis supervisor. As the spat and confusion plays out, she says of front-line workers, “We’re just collateral damage in the middle.”
She recounted how a front-line responder recently described it: “It feels I’m being asked to be a lifeguard with my hands tied behind my back.”