Washington recently enacted a number of new “police reform” laws that will significantly affect deputies’ ability to detect and prevent crime, hinder the apprehension of criminals and render our community less safe.

Law enforcement has always had the ability to detain a suspect that we have reasonable suspicion of committing a crime in the area where a crime had been reported.

That has changed.

New legislation restricts officers from using any degree of force unless “probable cause” exists to arrest, prevent an escape, or protect someone from imminent harm.

“Probable cause” is a fairly high legal standard that represents a radical departure from long-standing court precedent authorizing temporary investigative detentions (Terry stops) under the lesser standard of “reasonable suspicion.”

Deputies rely heavily on Terry stops to interrupt crime and protect citizens. Eliminating this investigative tool undoubtedly will result in increased victimization and many criminals remaining free.

The Skagit County Sheriff’s Office has a restrictive pursuit policy already in place allowing deputies to pursue a fleeing vehicle only under very serious circumstances. Pursuits were authorized for serious crimes based on the reasonable suspicion standard.

Pursuits are now limited to circumstances where probable cause exists to arrest for serious violent offenses defined as murder/manslaughter/homicide, assault in the first degree, kidnapping in the first degree, and rape. Pursuits for DUI continue to be allowed based on reasonable suspicion.

Once again, reasonable suspicion of the suspect that is fleeing in the vehicle of committing a serious crime cannot be pursued unless probable cause has been established.

Currently the Skagit County Sheriff’s Office has four mental health professionals riding in our vehicles with a deputy. They respond to calls that involve someone dealing with a mental health crisis.

Unless the person in crisis poses an imminent threat of bodily injury to themselves or others, deputies cannot use reasonable force to take that person to a hospital for a mental health evaluation.

The legislation states that if imminency doesn’t exist, deputies “should leave the area.” Our ability to help people in a crisis will be impacted by the new legislation.

The Sheriff’s Office is in favor of referring people with a drug addiction to treatment rather than the criminal justice system, but it is now law that we provide a person in possession of any drug (meth, heroin, cocaine, etc.) a list of drug treatment centers the first two times they are caught with drugs.

It is not a crime to possess drugs unless the person has been referred to treatment centers twice by law enforcement. The third time they are caught with drugs they will be referred to the prosecutor for a misdemeanor.

Limitations on some long-standing police tactics and restrictions on less-lethal alternatives will increase risks to officers’ safety and personal civil and criminal liability.

Concerns have resulted in the retirements and resignations of good, experienced officers and affected recruitment efforts to replace them.

The above represents just a sample of ramifications. Restrictions on interrogations, canine deployment and others will have substantial impacts as well.

— Chad Clark is undersheriff of the Skagit County Sheriff’s Office. Send questions to scsocommunity@co.skagit.wa.us.

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