BG police chief, local legislators comment on laws on police reform

Rick Bannan / [email protected]

The Battle Ground Police Chief is the youngest local law enforcement officer to publicly analyze the police reform laws passed during Washington State’s 2021 legislative session, while North County officials at the Statehouse raised concerns and called for a special session to review changes to the recently passed legislation .

On August 6, the City of Battle Ground released comments from Police Chief Mike Fort on two pieces of legislation passed by the Legislature earlier this year. The bills – House Bill 1310 and House Bill 1054 – cover a number of aspects of law enforcement and amend when officers are allowed to use physical force or initiate police prosecution.

In the remarks, Fort noted that the bills are still being “interpreted by legal advisors across the state.” He said officers from the Battle Ground Police Department had received training on the new law and the department was working to “fully comply with the law’s intent.”

Fort said HB 1310 raises the standard for detaining potential suspects involving physical violence from “reasonable suspicion” to “probable cause”.

“Unless there is an imminent risk of bodily harm, a potential suspect can only be physically arrested if there is a probable cause for a crime,” said Fort in his remarks, adding that suspects would likely “go or drive away” if the standard could not be met immediately. Officers would continue the investigation to determine the likely cause and then try to track down the suspect, he said.

Fort gave an example of a person using a flashlight to illuminate several cars parked on the street at night. Although officers had reasonable suspicions, without further investigation, no probable cause could be established and the person who shone the flashlight could leave the scene without arrest, he said.

“Despite the challenges posed by this new law, our police officers on the battlefield will continue to respond to calls to action, investigate and, if necessary, bring criminal charges,” said Fort.

He said local residents should continue to report suspicious activity or if they become a victim of a crime.

Fort also discussed de-escalation tactics required of officers based on the “reasonable care” requirement in HB 1310. Tactics include calling for reinforcements, creating physical distance, and leaving the area when no crime has been committed and there is no imminent harm.

Fort said the ramifications of the provision’s requirements would be particularly evident on social check-ups and medical calls where officials with no imminent risk of injury or likely cause of crime would be unable to bring a person into involuntary treatment. Often times, families call 911 when a family member is experiencing a mental crisis and refuses to volunteer, he said.

“We want families and community members to know that we will be responding to calls, but in some situations our officers may be required by law to leave the home without providing the assistance requested,” said Fort in his remarks.

HB 1054 places “significant restrictions” on law enforcement’s ability to engage in prosecutions, Fort said. The bill prohibits prosecution unless an officer has the likely reason that someone in the vehicle has committed a specific violent or sexual offense has committed or drives under the influence of alcohol. He said it was “almost impossible to set the standard in the early stages of a vehicle chase,” and said the requirements were particularly difficult to meet at the “critical moments” of a car chase.

Gone was the last head of local law enforcement who dealt with the new laws. La Center interim chief Bob Richardson responded to the law during a recent city council meeting, and Clark County Sheriff Chuck Atkins also raised concerns on July 22nd.

Legislators express concerns

Not only police officers are expressing concerns, as a number of local lawmakers have spoken out against the changes introduced by the draft laws.

In an August 10 press release, House Republican Leader JT Wilcox and Senate Republican Leader John Braun, who represents Woodland and parts of North County, issued a joint statement on the new laws. In it, lawmakers state that their offices have received concerns from citizens and local governments about the security implications and “ambiguous and contradicting language” in the bills.

“It is significant that the Democrats have rejected the concerns and feedback from those with lifelong law enforcement experience who are honest and accommodating in their assessment of the current situation,” lawmakers said.

They called Democratic supporters “elitist and condescending” because they claimed “they know best”.

Although law enforcement agencies were consulted in drafting the bills, their hands were “tied” and they were trying to develop the “least damaging bills,” said Wilcox of Yelm and Braun of Centralia.

Lawmakers said the main sponsor of the two bills, Rep. Jesse Johnson, D-Federal Way, also said the bills need to be fixed.

“We canI no longer agree, “said Wilcox and Braun, adding that Republicans have called for a special session of the legislature to make changes.

“The Democrats did not want any major ‘corrections’ during the process because they felt they already knew the correct answers,” lawmakers said. “Now they had to ask the Attorney General to save them from a fiasco that could have been avoided if they weren’t in such a hurry. You can’t make good politics like that. “

Wilcox and Braun said Washington Republicans support “balanced” legislation on public safety.

“We all want law enforcement officials to be accountable and respectful of the neighborhoods they serve,” lawmakers said. “(A) But their ability to hinder the public and themselves is wrong and dangerous.”

Also on August 10, Rep. Ed Orcutt, R-Kalama, commented on the new laws in an update to voters. He referred to recent cases in Puyallup, Everett, Spokane and the Tri-Cities region, reported by the news or by the police departments themselves, where the increased demands made officials unable to immediately arrest suspects or initiate pursuits.

“I believe the legislature needs to correct House Bill 1310 and House Bill 1054 as soon as possible. And I am sponsoring a special session to do this. It’s so important, ”Orcutt said in his update.

Orcutt added he had concerns about Senate Act 5051, which expands the state’s ability to decertify officials based on their behavior and prohibit them from working as officials in the state. He said the change could result in officials leaving law enforcement while others may not be in the profession.

“It is unfortunate that these three bills have passed and are causing so much confusion and harm,” Orcutt said, adding that the legislation overshadows other measures related to police that are supported by both parties.

Senator Lynda Wilson, R-Vancouver also commented on this year’s bills that focused on law enforcement, though she also mentioned her own criminal justice efforts that were not gaining momentum. In both 2020 and 2021, she introduced laws increasing the penalty for theft of firearms, although none of them managed to get a Senate vote, according to a July 29 newsletter from her office.

Wilson also referred to the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs’ annual 2020 crime statistics report, which showed an increase in homicides, drug overdose deaths and assaults on officials, while there were 172 fewer officials in that year compared to 2019 State also pointed out SB 5051 as something that could add to the law enforcement staff decline.

“I understand that law enforcement has been under the microscope in our state for a number of years, but this new law means local scrutiny – something we value for our public schools – is at risk for our public safety authorities to be lost go, “said Wilson stated in the newsletter.

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