Washington House Bills 1054 and 1310, and Senate Bill 5476 went into effect on Sunday, July 25, 2021. They are called “police reform laws.” They may have negative side effects for capturing suspects for law enforcement in the state. The main change? The wording: from “reasonable suspicion” to requiring actual ”probable cause.” They also narrowly define use of force…which prohibits police from using certain techniques to subdue a suspect. That’s IF they can find the suspect based on the new laws. In many cases, police will simply have to walk away.
Police reform laws in Washington state
Probable Cause is a legal term that requires specific, articulable reasons for a charge. Pursuit policies were previously decided by individual jurisdictions. Now they are state mandated. Use of force is so narrowly defined under the new laws that police may have to walk away from an uncooperative subject in mental distress. Police can no longer use any type of neck restraint, and are banned from certain riot control tactics. But there is confusion regarding some of the criteria, which will require clarification from the legislature.
To best illustrate this new restriction, please consider the following scenario*: Your family returns from a vacation to find a truck parked in the driveway of your home, and a person you do not know is loading stolen items from your house into the vehicle. You call 911 and provide the dispatcher with a description of the suspect’s truck as it drives out of your neighborhood with your belongings inside. A police officer responding to your call for help sees a truck resembling the description speeding out of your neighborhood.
Prior to July 25, the officer could attempt a traffic stop to determine whether the person was involved in the burglary, and if the vehicle fled the officer could pursue after it; after July 25, the officer can still attempt to stop the vehicle, but cannot pursue after the fleeing vehicle for any law enforcement purposes/actions if the driver does not stop. This applies to all law enforcement agencies throughout the state….
Another significant change is with the new use of force law which limits police interaction with non-compliant members of the public. Under the new law, police officers are required to have “probable cause” before using “physical force” to detain someone, as opposed to the previous standard of “reasonable suspicion”. Physical force can also be used by officers to prevent an escape or to protect against an imminent threat of bodily injury to the officer, another person, or the person against whom force is being used. In some situations this means that we must let potential suspects walk away from a crime scene until we have developed a high standard of having enough facts, information, and/or evidence for a reasonable officer to believe that a person is more likely than not to have committed a crime.
Please consider the following scenario*: Dispatchers receive a 911 call from a person who reports hearing screaming and loud noises from an apartment next door. The caller reports that it sounds like the woman next door is being assaulted by her boyfriend, but is only able to provide a vague description of what the boyfriend looks like and does not know his name. As the first responding officer approaches the apartment, he sees a man running through the parking lot wearing clothing that is similar to the description provided in the 911 call.
Prior to July 25, the officer could use physical force if necessary to detain the man based on reasonable suspicion that he is fleeing the domestic violence incident and had indeed committed a crime. After July 25, the officer cannot use any type of “physical force” to detain the suspect until “probable cause” has been established. This means that officers must let the man walk away from the scene until they can interview the victim and/or witnesses to determine with a high level of certainty that a crime has occurred and the person is a suspect in that crime…
Our deputies are expected to serve with courage, compassion, integrity, respect, and responsibility. They are deeply committed to our mission of protecting life and property, and upholding rights. We do not write the laws, but we do respond to your home, business, or school when you are having an emergency – but the way we might do that will now be different. You may now see us leave calls that we previously would have handled; these calls will now need to be handled by new programs, systems, or responders that have not yet been envisioned, created, or funded. You may now see suspects walk away or drive away from a variety of crimes that we previously would have been able to pursue and/or detain them using varied levels of force.
It is unclear what, if any, clarification will be issued by state legislators over these “police reform laws.” People who have never been on patrol, or encountered such scenarios created the laws.
”As you can imagine in the dynamic world of policing in 2021, most of the time it is nearly impossible to have all of those facts sorted out while responding to the initial 911 call, and this ultimately allows a suspect the ability to flee the area without being stopped.”
Snohomish County Sheriff Adam Fortney
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