I wanted to share this information with you about new legislation affecting the ability of our Sheriff’s Department to protect us that took effect July 25. Below is a message from the Pierce County Sheriff’s Department that went out over the weekend with a few added details.
From the Pierce County Sheriff's Department:
As many of you are aware, 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, debated by your elected Senators and Representatives, and ultimately voted upon with a passing majority. Many of these new laws went into effect Sunday 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 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. Note that “probable cause” is a high standard to meet—there must be 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 illustrate this new restriction, 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. If the vehicle fled, the officer could pursue 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.
See the full bill. View the sponsors and the roll call votes for the bill here.
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, when possible, to 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.
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. Note that 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.
See the full bill. View the sponsors and the roll call for the bill here.
*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.
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 1,000 residents. Also, 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.
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 – 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. Now, you may 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 their application 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.
A final thought
I send this release from the Sheriff to inform you of what we at the Council will be facing as we work to fund our defenders this budget year. Please click on the legislation above to see how your state representatives voted then share with them your position on their vote. I am thanking you in advance for your support to work hard to see that our defenders have the tools they need to keep us safe.
Grateful for you!