Olympia, WA – Law enforcement leaders have repeatedly warned citizens that things will not be business-as-usual for officers in the state after a slew of police reforms laws went into effect on Sunday that prevent police from chasing violent crime suspects and assisting with mental health calls.
Sheriffs and police chiefs from numerous agencies and jurisdictions across the state released statements in days leading up to July 25 when Washington House Bills 1054 and 1310, and Senate Bill 5476, went into effect, KING reported.
Officials wanted their community members to understand why officers wouldn’t be doing some basic things that they’ve been seen doing in the past, such as chasing bad guys or arresting people who are opening using illegal drugs in public.
The Pierce County Sheriff’s Department explained some of the changes in a Facebook post on July 23 and said “the largest impact for our residents will be the changes to our ability to pursue after a suspect who is fleeing in a vehicle.”
Snohomish County Sheriff Adam Fortney explained in a Facebook post on July 21 that prior to the implementation of the new laws, pursuit policies were determined by individual jurisdictions.
Under HB 1054, all jurisdictions are subject to the same state legislature-determined pursuit policy which severely limits when a law enforcement officer can engage in a vehicle pursuit, Sheriff Fortney wrote.
The new law only allows a vehicle pursuit if there is “probable cause to believe that a person in the vehicle has committed or is committing a violent offense or a sex offense,” according to the sheriff.
“The key part of this legislation is the state has moved the legal bar to pursue for a violent offense to ‘probable cause’ rather than ‘reasonable suspicion,’” Sheriff Fortney explained. “For example, if a deputy sheriff was to respond to an armed robbery and the suspect vehicle was described as a blue F150 and a deputy saw a blue F150 driving at a high rate of speed in the same area as the robbery occurred, a law enforcement officer could still try to make a traffic stop this vehicle, however if the suspect vehicle decides to flee we can no longer pursue it under House Bill 1054.”
He said that under the new law, officers can’t pursue suspected violent offenders who have just committed an armed robbery until they take the time to first establish probable cause. For example, they may need to first contact the victim or a witness and confirm exactly what crime has been committed and what specific person is responsible in order to establish probable cause prior to engaging in the vehicle pursuit.
“While this may seem like a small detail, it will have substantial impacts on the ability for law enforcement officers to pursue vehicles fleeing from the scene of a crime,” the sheriff wrote. “Often times, it is simply impossible to have all of this figured out while responding to a call and coming across a suspect vehicle fleeing.”
And under HB 1310, the new use-of-force law, law enforcement officers cannot detain possible suspects the see fleeing the area of a crime unless they have confirmed that the crime occurred and they know that the person fleeing is the actual suspected offender.
“For example, under the current law, if a man was to break into your house while you were inside, you confront him and he runs away, and you call 911 to provide a description of the suspect as ‘a white male, in his 30s, wearing a red shirt and black shorts, leaving on foot,’” Sheriff Fortney wrote in another Facebook post on July 20.
“It has always been considered reasonable that if a law enforcement officer arrived to the area and saw a suspect matching this description, that we had the legal authority to stop him and if he ran, we were allowed to use reasonable force to chase him and detain him. This would be allowed under the current ‘reasonable suspicion’ threshold,” he wrote. “Under HB 1310, this is no longer allowed.”
“A deputy sheriff no longer has the authority to use force to apprehend the suspect in the above scenario,” the sheriff explained. “With the new threshold being ‘probable cause,’ a deputy sheriff will have to have articulable facts, that are confirmed by a victim or witness, that a specific crime has occurred and the person we are seeking is the one responsible.”
“That means we can no longer stop and detain a fleeing suspect matching a description who is running from the area of a crime that just occurred,” he added.
“We must first make contact with the reporting party or a witness, confirm the facts of the crime, develop probable cause and then we can go back and look for that individual,” Sheriff Fortney continued. “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.”
“I want the community to know that this type of scenario is not a rarity in police work and the new legal standard of ‘probable cause’ to use force in an investigative detention will have substantial impacts. This type of similar scenario occurs regularly in Snohomish County, and this new standard is the same for all types of crimes, including violent crimes,” he added.
Sheriff Fortney explained that the result would be countless hours of detective work to track down offenders and make arrests of suspects who fled the scenes of their crimes.
Also under HB 1310, law enforcement officers won’t be able to help EMS detain a person having a mental health crisis.
Sheriff Fortney said officers will not be able to use force to detain a person in crisis for transport to the hospital unless there is an imminent threat of bodily injury to a person.
“As a result, sheriff deputies will have to walk away from many crisis incidents far more often than in the past,” he wrote. “This will also largely impact our ability to assist Fire/Aid and Designated Crisis Responders.”
The sheriff also warned community members in another Facebook post on July 23 that deputies who responded to calls about people openly using drugs would no longer be making arrests until after two prior incidents where the suspect was offered documented referrals for recovery services.
Those referrals could be as simple as a pamphlet or as complex as actually helping a person enter into a detox program, Sheriff Fortney explained.
Only on the third offense would deputies make an arrest and then the person would be offered services again inside the Snohomish County Jail.
It was clear that law enforcement agencies wanted the community to understand that they didn’t choose these changes.
“It is important that we share these significant changes with you,” the Pierce County Sheriff’s Department wrote. “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.”