BURLINGTON — Burlington Police Chief Mike Luvera told his City Council on Thursday that his officers will no longer respond to certain public disturbance calls or engage in vehicle pursuits, amid concerns with police reform legislation that goes into effect Sunday.
At a meeting of the City Council, Luvera said by his interpretation these new laws would make it too legally risky for his officers to contact someone yelling at traffic, or a “strange man” standing near a day care center.
This is primarily because of a new law that gives officers a list of things to think about before engaging with a suspect. Among them is a requirement Luvera interprets to say officers must leave someone alone if there isn’t an observable crime or an imminent threat.
“This is brand-new for our police officers, who are going to enforce this on Sunday,” he said, adding he hasn’t been given enough time or information to properly train his department’s officers.
The law also requires that officers consult a supervisor before pursuing a suspect in a vehicle, which Luvera said isn’t practical and will result in officers unable to initiate pursuits.
And in situations where force is necessary, Luvera is concerned his officers will lose valuable time going through a mental checklist of unfamiliar rules before they act.
State Rep. Alex Ramel, D-Bellingham, who had been invited to the City Council meeting to give a general update on the past legislative session, said he felt compelled to use his time to respond to Luvera.
Ramel said he and fellow legislators have spoken with heads of other police departments who have interpreted the legislation less rigidly.
He said legislators produced this and other police reform legislation in order to make communities — specifically communities of color — feel safer by minimizing instances when law enforcement uses force.
He said such legislation should not prevent officers from responding to any calls. If police departments thinking so is a mistake of the Legislature rather than an incorrect interpretation, he said it will be addressed.
Ramel said there’s a growing consensus that mental health professionals, with police backup, are often the best resource to respond to some types of public disturbance calls, and that the Legislature increased funding for such positions during its past session.
Burlington doesn’t have a mental health professional in its police department, but is interested in partnering with Skagit County to bring one in, Luvera said. Mount Vernon and the county Sheriff’s Office both have such resources.
The state Office of the Attorney General is preparing guidelines that will offer a unified interpretation, but the office has until July 2022 to complete the guidelines.
Ramel said he knew the July 2022 deadline for the guidelines had the potential to cause problems, and he hopes they will be completed sooner.
Luvera’s said he feels the legislation is written from the perspective that “when we show up, we escalate,” and he said that hasn’t been his experience in law enforcement.
“Burlington is my third agency in 30 years,” he said. “In that time, I haven’t seen this kind of thing.”
While he said he understands the Legislature’s intent, he said he believes these laws go too far in restricting law enforcement officers.
He said he sent letters to the Governor’s Office and attempted to contact legislators, but didn’t hear back.
He said putting safeguards in place to reduce the risk of use of force has the unintended consequence of dissuading the community-style policing he believes makes a difference.
Burlington Fire Chief Rob Toth said his team is going to have to respond to some calls that Luvera feels his officers aren’t allowed to respond to.
At the City Council meeting, Toth said situations where someone is sleeping in a public park previously warranted a police response, but now will have to be handled by firefighters — a significant shift in how firefighters have done their jobs.