BG police chief, local lawmakers weigh in on police reform bills

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Battle Ground’s police chief is the latest local law enforcement leader to publicly analyze the police reform bills passed during the 2021 Washington State Legislative session, while those representing North County in the statehouse raised concerns and called for a special session to make changes to the recently-implemented legislation.

On Aug. 6, the city of Battle Ground released remarks from police chief Mike Fort regarding two bills passed by the Legislature earlier this year. The bills — House Bill 1310 and House Bill 1054 — handle a range of aspects in law enforcement and change when officers are allowed to use physical force or initiate a police pursuit.

In the remarks, Fort noted the bills are still being “interpreted by legal advisors throughout the state.” He said officers with the Battle Ground Police Department have received training related to the new laws and the department is working to “fully comply with the intent of the law.”

Fort said HB 1310 raises the standard to detain potential suspects with physical force from “reasonable suspicion” to “probable cause.”

“Unless there is imminent threat of bodily injury, a potential suspect can only be detained with the use of physical force when there is probable cause for a crime,” Fort said in his remarks, adding suspects would likely “walk or drive away” if the standard couldn’t be immediately met. Officers would continue the investigation to establish probable cause, then attempt to locate the suspect, he said.

Fort gave an example of a person shining a flashlight into several cars parked on the street during the night. Though the officers would have reasonable suspicion, probable cause couldn’t be established without further investigation, and the person shining the flashlight would be able to leave the scene without being detained, he said.

“Despite the challenges this new law creates, our Battle Ground police officers will continue to respond to calls for service, conduct investigations and initiate criminal charges as appropriate,” Fort said.

He said residents should continue to report suspicious activity in progress, or if they are a victim of a crime.

Fort also touched on de-escalation tactics required from officers based on a “reasonable care” provision in HB 1310. The tactics include calling for backup, creating physical distance, and leaving the area if a crime hasn’t been committed and there is no imminent threat of harm.

Fort said the impacts of the requirements of the provision would be especially evident on welfare checks and medical calls, where absent any imminent threat of injury or probable cause of a crime, officers would not be able to get a person into involuntary treatment. Oftentimes families call 911 when a family member suffers a mental health crisis and refuses voluntary help, he said.

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

HB 1054 places “significant restrictions” on law enforcement’s ability to engage in pursuits, Fort said. The bill prohibits a pursuit unless an officer has probable cause that someone in the vehicle has committed a specific violent crime or sex offense, or is driving under the influence. He said the standard “is almost impossible to establish at the early stages of a vehicle pursuit,” saying the requirements are especially challenging to meet in the “critical moments” of a chase.

Fort was the latest head of local law enforcement to weigh in on the new laws. La Center’s interim chief Bob Richardson responded to the laws during a recent city council meeting and Clark County Sheriff Chuck Atkins also raised concerns on July 22.

Lawmakers air concerns

Police officers aren’t the only ones to raise concerns, as a number of local legislators have voiced their opposition to the changes brought on by the bills.

In an Aug. 10 release, House Republican Leader J.T. Wilcox and Senate Republican Leader John Braun, who represents Woodland and parts of North County, released a joint statement about the new laws. In it, the lawmakers state their offices have received concerns from citizens and local governments over the impacts to safety and “ambiguous and conflicting language” in the bills.

“It’s telling that Democrats are dismissing the concerns and feedback from those with a lifetime of law enforcement experience who are being honest and forthcoming in their assessment of the current situation,” the lawmakers stated.

They called the Democratic supporters “elitist and condescending” for asserting “that they know best.”

Though law enforcement was consulted in developing the bills, their “hands were tied” and they attempted to develop the “least-harmful bills possible,” Wilcox, of Yelm, and Braun, of Centralia, stated.

The lawmakers stated the two bills’ primary sponsor, Rep. Jesse Johnson, D-Federal Way, also said the bills need to be fixed.

“We couldn’t agree more,” Wilcox and Braun stated, adding Republicans have called for a special session of the Legislature to make changes.

“Democrats didn’t want substantial ‘fixes’ during the process because they felt they already knew the right answers,” the lawmakers stated. “Now they’ve had to ask the attorney general to rescue them from a fiasco that might have been avoided if they hadn’t been in such a rush. That’s no way to make good policy.”

Wilcox and Braun stated Washington Republicans would be supportive of “balanced” legislation regarding public safety.

“We all want members of law enforcement to be accountable and respectful to the neighborhoods they serve,” the lawmakers stated. “(B)ut hamstringing their ability to protect the public and themselves is wrong and dangerous.”

Also on Aug. 10, Rep. Ed Orcutt, R-Kalama, weighed in on the new laws in an update for constituents. He pointed to recent cases in Puyallup, Everett, Spokane and the Tri-Cities area reported by the news or from police departments themselves where officers were unable to immediately apprehend suspects or initiate pursuits based on the heightened requirements.

“I believe the Legislature needs to fix House Bill 1310 and House Bill 1054 as soon as possible. And I support a special session to do it. It is that important,” Orcutt stated in his update.

Orcutt added he had concerns over Senate Bill 5051, which expands the state’s ability to decertify officers based on their conduct, barring them from working as an officer in the state. He said the change may make officers leave law enforcement, while others may not pursue the profession.

“It is unfortunate that these three bills passed and are causing so much confusion and damage,” Orcutt stated, adding the legislation overshadowed other measures in regards to policing that had bipartisan support.

Sen. Lynda Wilson, R-Vancouver, also commented on this year’s law enforcement-focused bills, though she also mentioned her own efforts regarding criminal justice that didn’t gain traction. In both 2020 and 2021 she introduced bills increasing the penalty for stealing firearms, though neither managed to make it to a Senate floor vote, a July 29 newsletter from her office stated.

Wilson also pointed to the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs’ annual crime statistics report for 2020, which she stated showed increases in murders, drug overdose deaths and assaults on officers, while there were 172 fewer officers in the state that year compared to 2019. She also pointed to SB 5051 as something that could exacerbate the decline in law enforcement personnel numbers.

“I realize law enforcement in our state has been under a microscope for several years now, but this new law means local control — something we highly value for our public schools — is at risk of being lost for our public-safety agencies,” Wilson stated in the newsletter.

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