A slew of new police reforms in Washington state force police officers to allow suspects to flee crime scenes in many cases, even if they are suspected of committing a violent crime.
Democratic Washington Governor Jay Inslee signed a dozen police reform bills into law in May, saying “we have a moral mandate to uproot systemic racism in our society” and that he believes Washington can become an “anti-racist state.”
The bills, some of which went into effect last week, were passed by the state’s Democrat-controlled legislature.
The spate of new reforms hamstrings cops in their ability to immediately detain violent criminals by requiring that they have “probable cause” to arrest them before they detain them, a much stricter standard than the previous “reasonable suspicion” standard. A police officer may also detain a suspect if the person poses an “imminent threat,” a term that lends itself easily to subjective interpretation after the fact.
Washington’s new laws do allow a cop to ask a fleeing suspect to stop and be detained, but the officer cannot use any force to prevent the suspect from escaping if “probable cause” is absent. The laws have been beset by confusion at police departments, but the new rules appear to mandate that even if the person is suspected of murder or rape, the cop cannot forcibly detain him on that suspicion alone.
Cops are also now required to use the “least amount of physical force necessary” in dealing with a suspect, rather than the previous standard of using “reasonable” force, restricting officers even further.
One of the bills drastically restricts when officers are allowed to engage in police car chases, apparently making it easier for officers to chase a drunk driver than a person suspected of committing a murder or sex offense.
Another reform cracks down on so-called “military equipment.” When the law went into effect, police departments in Washington were required to surrender all of their “military equipment,” which included machine guns, armed helicopters, bayonets, and grenades as well as firearms and ammunition of .50 caliber or greater. This had one apparently unintended effect — police had to turn in some of their less lethal weapons that happened to be .50 caliber or greater, including bean bag launching shotguns and foam round launchers. The law effectively stripped Washington’s police departments of several of their less lethal options for responding to violent crime.
The sweeping reforms also ban chokeholds, neck restraints, and “no-knock” warrants, and they restrict the use of tear gas.
In one change that could dramatically affect how police conduct is scrutinized, one of the bills creates a new agency to investigate and charge law enforcement officers statewide. In the past, that type of investigation would normally have been handled by local prosecutors.
Police say they are extremely concerned about how the new reforms will impact crime in their communities as well as the safety of officers. Morale at police departments in Washington has already been plummeting for months.
“There’s a real concern that it could increase crime, and it could increase reckless driving, traffic fatalities,” said Steven Strachan, executive director of the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs (WASPC).
Violent crime is already on the rise in Washington. Assaults on officers have increased nearly 7% since 2019. While hate crimes and drug arrests dropped last year, murders have risen nearly 67% since 2016, according to data from the WASPC.
At a press conference on July 22, law enforcement heads from around the state said there is a great deal of confusion about how to interpret the reforms. Spokane County Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich said that one of his deputies told him the laws had resulted in “chaos.” He added that legislators had not consulted with law enforcement leaders at all as they were crafting the bills.
“And now we hear from legislators that we are overreacting, that we don’t understand the laws, that we don’t understand their intent, and you’re right, we don’t,” Knezovich said.
The Washington Fraternal Order of Police (WAFOP) urged the state attorney general to offer more guidance on two of the bills dealing with use of force.
“What would help most right now is a formal written legal opinion from the Office of the Attorney General so that law enforcement and the community have a clear sense of how the new legislation is to be applied,” the WAFOP said in a statement.
The riots that ravaged Seattle last year prompted a wave of police departures, a trend expected to continue in the wake of the new police reforms. Washington already has the lowest ratio of police officers to residents of any state with only 1.7 officers for every 1,000 residents, according to Justice Department figures. The national average is 2.5 police officers per 1,000 residents.
Washington’s new reforms are just the latest in a string of police reforms since the death of George Floyd last summer. Earlier this year, another rule went into effect in the state requiring police recruits to take an eight-hour course on the history of racism and policing. The required curriculum was part of another nine police reform bills Washington passed in April.