A variety of police reform laws enacted this year will change the way law enforcement does its job, and while there is hope the changes will be for the better, there are also concerns about the impacts the reforms may have on the safety of the community.
Mount Vernon Police Chief Chris Cammock, who is chair of the Skagit County Police Chiefs and Sheriff Executive Board, said he believes the intentions of the state lawmakers were good.
“Where the disconnect comes is how they’ve gone about doing that,” he said.
About a dozen police reform bills were passed by the state Legislature this year, with a few of them poised to create significant changes in the way law enforcement operates, and what the public can expect, Cammock said.
“It’s not a matter of choice on our part,” Cammock said of abiding by the new laws. “It’s a requirement.”
State Rep. Alex Ramel, D-Bellingham, said all of the laws were passed with the intent of making people, particularly those in marginalized communities, feel safer interacting with law enforcement.
“Everyone in Washington state deserves to feel safe and to feel protected by our law enforcement,” he said. “We’re trying to find the right way to make sure that law enforcement is able to protect our communities, and that all of our communities — some of whom right now are frightened by practices that some police departments are using — that we’re able to give those communities a sense of confidence that peace officers will be protecting them.”
Among the laws causing the most concern, and confusion, are those that originated as House Bill 1310, which relates to officers’ use of force, and House Bill 1054, known as the “tactics bill.”
Both laws went into effect July 25.
For law enforcement, a big concern about what originated as House Bill 1310 is that it will require officers to stand down or leave a scene when there is no threat of imminent danger or crime — even if the person is in the midst of a mental health crisis or is suffering from addiction.
Whereas before police had the ability to detain that person and take them for treatment, the new law does not allow for that, Cammock said.
“If there’s not an imminent threat or crime, we need to consider leaving the area,” he said.
Ramel disagrees with that interpretation of the law.
“I do not see anything in that law that prevents law enforcement from responding to calls for help with somebody who is experiencing a mental health crisis,” he said.
Ramel said what that law does is make it clear that the standard practice among law enforcement officers throughout the state is to use the least amount of force possible.
The law outlines four circumstances in which officers are able to use force: to protect against criminal conduct, effect an arrest, prevent as escape or to protect against an “imminent threat.”
Outside those four circumstances, law enforcement is required to use all available de-escalation methods possible — something that is already common practice among Skagit County law enforcement agencies, Cammock said.
Under the law that originated as House Bill 1054, law enforcement can no longer stop people for reasonable suspicion — meaning it’s more likely than not that they committed a crime — and instead must meet the higher standard of probable cause before someone can be detained.
“There’s a much higher bar,” Cammock said. “We don’t have the ability to stop, immediately, what’s going on.”
Before, if law enforcement was called to the scene of a vehicle prowl and saw a person who matched the suspect description acting suspicious, they could stop that person and ask questions to determine if probable cause existed.
That is not the case anymore, Cammock said.
Now, if officers cannot determine probable cause upon arrival, they may have to wait to establish it before they can detain or arrest someone.
“We don’t have the amount of information now that we did before,” Cammock said. “It’s now going to take us more investigative time.”
That law also limits the circumstances in which law enforcement can engage in vehicle pursuits to four: if probable cause exists to believe the person committed a violent offense, as defined by state law; committed a sex offense; escaped custody; or if there is a reasonable suspicion the person is driving under the influence.
“High-speed police chases are very, very dangerous,” Ramel said. “It is important that they be limited to the most serious instances.”
Cammock said even before the law went into effect high-speed vehicle pursuits were relatively rare in Skagit County. In the city of Mount Vernon, of 21,000 calls for service in 2020 only eight resulted in pursuits, which were quickly called off by officers in the interest of public safety, he said.
However, a concern of Cammock, and other law enforcement administrators like him, is how much the law limits their ability to respond if they feel they have to, Cammock said.
For example, if officers respond to a scene of domestic violence, they are obligated by state law to make an arrest.
However, under the new law, many cases of domestic violence do not reach definition of “violent offense,” meaning if officers arrive and a suspect leaves the scene in a vehicle, the officers will be unable to pursue them.
“There’s going to be more time and more work involved on our part,” Cammock said.
The exception to that rule would be if the person is suspected of first- or second-degree assault, or assault involving a firearm, Ramel said.
Even with the “violent offense” provision in the new law, Ramel said he does not believe the law would prevent officers from stopping the suspect.
Knowing there is differences in how the law is interpreted, Ramel said he would be willing to work with law enforcement to find clarity on such cases.
“In most cases, though, I continue to believe that trying to apprehend a suspect in other ways — later, without a high-speed chase and all the risk to bystanders that entails — is the best policy,” he said.
The law that originated as House Bill 1054 also addresses some policing issues that have garnered attention nationwide, including requiring de-escalation training and for officers to identify themselves, barring officers from using chokeholds, conducting no-knock warrants or firing at moving vehicles, and prohibiting the use of tear gas in most situations — all things that are already against policy among Skagit County law enforcement agencies, Cammock said.
“We recognize that our communities are different than maybe some of those other communities where maybe some of these feelings have come from,” Cammock said. “We rely heavily on our relationships with our communities.”
Another things the new law bans is the use of any ammunition .50 caliber or higher — which has caused Ramel to hear concern from law enforcement that nonlethal bean bag rounds fall in that category.
Ramel said that, too, is a misinterpretation.
“I think it’s pretty clear that what we intended was bullets, not bean bags,” he said.
Another law coming out of the latest legislative session is one designed to fix a law the state Supreme Court ruled earlier this year was unconstitutional.
This law, which originated as Senate Bill 5476, addresses the Supreme Court’s issue with a previous law potentially punishing those who are unknowingly in possession of drugs.
Under the new law, not only do people have to knowingly be in possession of personal quantities of drugs in order to face any criminal charges, they must first be offered information about treatment options two times before they face what is now a misdemeanor charge.
“I think we ought to be moving in a direction of getting people the help they need without the involvement of the criminal justice system,” Ramel said.
Officials in the criminal justice system, however, worry the new law will have the opposite effect.
“What it’s turning out to be is we’re having more overdoses and more overdose deaths,” Skagit County Prosecuting Attorney Rich Weyrich said. “Some of these people are probably people we could have helped, but we’re not getting that opportunity.”
While law enforcement in Skagit County can access records to find out if a person has been given information twice about drug treatment options, they do not have the ability to determine if a person has been contacted by agencies outside the county, Cammock said.
Without being able to document the number of contacts a person has had with law enforcement, it may take longer for some people to get to the third contact point where they can be referred for charges, Weyrich said.
“The public is the one we’re trying to protect,” he said. “I think we’re getting away from trying to protect the public by not holding these people accountable.”
Drug possession is now a misdemeanor as opposed to a felony, making it less likely people will take advantage of diversionary programs such as Drug Court, Weyrich said.
“It’s just a revolving door,” he said. “They’ll never get to that point. Nobody gets sober enough to realize they need it.”
Without being able to hold people in custody until the drugs can leave their systems, those people may not even be able to recognize they need help, Weyrich said.
Even if they realize they need help, there are limited resources available in many communities, including those in Skagit County, Cammock said.
Ramel said the law provides funding to eventually increase those options statewide.
“What we’re supposed to be doing here, what we ought to be doing here, is getting them help,” he said.
Because of the suddenness with which the Legislature was forced to address the state’s drug possession law, Ramel said legislators will likely keep working on it and making adjustments.
For some of the other issues with the new police reform legislation, Ramel said interested parties need to get together to sort out what the new laws do and do not say, and from there address what can be changed.
“I would just bring it back to the context that this falls into — a long history of injustice in our policing and criminal justice systems,” he said. “And clear evidence and a clear public insistence for that change to happen. We recognize that it’s a lot and that it will require police departments to make changes in policy.”
In the end, Ramel hopes the changes will increase trust among police and residents in their communities.
In the meantime, law enforcement will have to adjust.
“We’re going to have to look at these things and figure out new and innovative ways to police,” Cammock said. “Our commitment to the community, as far as public safety services, that remains unchanged.”