The Washington State Legislature recently enacted multiple bills with the intention of reforming law enforcement throughout the State of Washington. Over the course of the 2021 legislative session these bills were drafted, testified on, debated by elected senators and representatives, and ultimately voted upon, with a passing majority. Many of these new laws went into effect on July 25, and will have an impact on our operations.
It is important that we share these significant changes with you. This is not about what we WILL no longer do – this is about what we CAN no longer do under the new laws. Please know that if a crime has occurred, we will still respond to your call for help. The way we handle the call may be different than before, but the values and mission of our department will remain the same.
House Bill 1054 – Police Tactics
Although this new law restricts a number of police tactics including the use of tear gas, defensive tactics, and equipment, the largest impact for our residents will be the changes to our ability to pursue after a suspect who is fleeing in a vehicle. Law enforcement officers will only be able to engage in a pursuit if there is “probable cause” to arrest a person in the vehicle for committing a specified violent crime or sex offense such as Murder, Kidnapping, Drive-By Shooting, or Rape. This does not include property crimes such as Residential Burglary, Theft, Possession of a Stolen Vehicle, or the most common domestic violence incidents including Domestic Violence Simple Assault, Violation of a No Contact or Protection Order, and Stalking. Law enforcement can no longer pursue after vehicles for any traffic offenses with the exception of Vehicular Assault, Vehicular Homicide, and Driving Under the Influence. Of note, “probable cause” is 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.
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.
House Bill 1310 – Use of Force
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.
The new law also requires officers to, when possible, exhaust available and appropriate de-escalation tactics prior to using any physical force and to “leave the area” when no crime has been committed and there is no imminent threat of harm to the involved person or someone else. This will significantly change how police respond to mental health crisis calls throughout the state.
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. Of note, the term “physical force” was not defined in the new law; currently what constitutes physical “force” is viewed in a large variety of ways depending on each police department’s policy – this can range from holding someone’s arm, placing someone in handcuffs, pulling someone from a vehicle, grabbing someone during a foot pursuit, etc.
*These scenarios are not intended to depict all possible variables or outcomes; there are many variables in real world emergencies that might impact what actions can be taken by officers or how these laws may be applied.
2021 Legislative Bills Concerning Law Enforcement
|Bill Number||Bill Description||Effective Date|
|HB 1267||Concerning investigation of potential criminal conduct arising from police use of force, including custodial injuries, and other officer-involved incidents||July 25, 2021|
|SB 5051||Concerning state oversight and accountability of peace officers and corrections officers||July 25, 2021|
|HB 1054||Establishing requirements for tactics and equipment used by peace officers||July 25, 2021|
|HB 1310||Concerning permissible uses of force by law enforcement and correctional officers||July 25, 2021|
|SB 5066||Concerning a peace officer's duty to intervene||July 25, 2021|
|SB 5259||Concerning law enforcement data collection||July 25, 2021|
|SB 5263||Concerning defenses in personal injury and wrongful death actions where the person injured or killed was committing a felony|
July 25, 2021
|SB 5353||Creating a partnership model that facilitates community engagement with law enforcement||July 25, 2021|
|HB 1088||Concerning potential impeachment disclosures|
July 25, 2021
|HB 1140||Concerning juvenile access to attorneys when contacted by law enforcement||July 25, 2021|
|HB 1223||Enacting the uniform electronic recordation of custodial interrogations act||January 1, 2022|
|HB 1089||Concerning compliance audits of requirements relating to peace officers and law enforcement agencies||January 1, 2022|
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Crime in Washington
We would also like to share with you some important information from a report that was released last week by the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs regarding crime and policing in our state. Washington State currently ranks last in the entire nation for the number of police officers per capita at 1.19 sworn officers per 1000 residents; nationwide, the rate of sworn officers is 2.4 per 1000 residents. The Pierce County Sheriff’s Department is responsible for serving and protecting the second largest population in the state behind the City of Seattle; we do so with only 0.64 deputies per 1000 residents. Also of note, according to this report last year in Washington State there were 302 murders in 2020, an increase of 46% over the previous year; our department responded to a 20% increase in homicides, while our neighbors in Tacoma investigated 31 homicides at a staggering 82.4% increase in comparison with 2019. In short, we have tremendous deputies doing tremendously important and challenging work.
See the full report at: https://www.waspc.org/assets/CJIS/Crime%20In%20Washington%202020-small.pdf
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. We will continue to serve our county’s residents and will support criminal justice reform that builds trust while creating a safer community for all who we have sworn to protect.
While these laws are very new, we anticipate that there may be changes to how they are applied as we continue to receive additional clarification from the state legislature and courts. It is our hope that the state legislature will responsibly address any unintended impacts to public safety in the community that we proudly live, work, and serve in.