While local law enforcement officials have voiced concerns and area lawmakers have come out in strong opposition of new police reform laws, those who support the passed legislation say opponents’ interpretations of the measures are far from the realities of the laws.
During its 2021 session, the Washington State Legislature passed a “remarkable” total of 14 pieces of legislation regarding police accountability, said Leslie Kushman, citizen sponsor of Initiative 940 and member of the Washington Coalition for Police Accountability (WCPA). She participated in a presentation during the Aug. 28 meeting of the Vancouver NAACP hosted virtually to provide insight on the bills.
Kushman’s analysis on the impacts of the laws differed from interpretations of local department heads in law enforcement and representatives of North County in the Legislature. NAACP Vancouver President Jasmine Tolbert said the presentation was an attempt to address “problematic language used by law enforcement and the way that they’ve decided to interpret this legislation,” adding comments on the laws made from law enforcement are “truly harmful to the community.”
“We needed a better source for the information,” Tolbert said.
The legislation passed covered a wide range of police reform measures, from grants used by law enforcement for professional development, police interrogation procedures, the establishment of a statewide office for independent investigation, to using calls to law enforcement for harassment, Kushman said.
Kushman focused on two bills specifically — House Bill 1310, which regards police use of force, and House Bill 1054, which deals with a number of police procedures.
HB 1310 sets a “reasonable care” standard and requires physical force only be used if there’s probable cause of a crime or when there’s imminent danger to the officer or others.
“Police have said that this law has impacted their work so they can’t even do their job. They say it ties their hands. This is untrue,” Kushman said, explaining it has led to police refusing calls to service on property crimes, person in crisis calls, and for accompanying mental health professionals to calls.
The law “doesn’t say that in order to come to a call you have to be there to address a violent crime where you use force,” Kushman said.
“If they use force, it’s supposed to be proportional, and as soon as the need for force goes away, they’re supposed to stop using force,” Kushman said.
She added the standards in the law are based on existing best practices, mentioning a number of agencies are already taking those steps.
HB 1054 covers a number of restrictions on police actions, like a ban on the use of chokeholds, restricting tear gas use to hostage situations, and the banning of sound cannons, fragmentation grenades and sniper rifles, as well as armed drones, helicopters and tanks, Kushman said.
Kushman said the Legislature had “no intention” to ban less-lethal alternatives based on the caliber of the device used, pointing to parts of HB 1310 that require those alternatives be used. She added the issue would be taken up by the Legislature.
The law also requires unobstructed identification of officers on their uniforms, bans no-knock warrants, and places restrictions on vehicle pursuits, Kushman said. She said the requirement for supervisor approval to initiate a pursuit is based on existing best practices used in King County and other agencies.
“Traffic stops are probably the number one way where discriminatory policing is evident,” Kushman said.
Nickeia Hunter, a WCPA member and legal redress committee chair for Vancouver NAACP, said the laws are intended to hold police accountable to the same level of Washington citizens.
“It’s not outrageous to be held accountable for your actions. If a doctor hurt someone or causes harm during any time of practice, there’s malpractice (procedures,)” Hunter said.
Hunter is a WCPA member as an impacted family member. Her brother, Carlos, was killed by police in Vancouver in March 2019, months before the shooting death of Kevin Peterson Jr.
“The system is not only broken, I’ve known that my whole life, but I don’t think I cared about how … broken it was until my brother was slaughtered,” Hunter said.
She said the WCPA reached out to organizations representing law enforcement while crafting the bills, though they didn’t collaborate with the coalition, instead going through other channels in their attempt to modify the bills before they became law.
“Law enforcement is just choosing to not implement it because it’s not the language that they wanted,” Hunter said. “It’s causing situations in the community to not be addressed because (law enforcement) is not showing up.”
Hunter said she wouldn’t be surprised if the pushback from law enforcement leads to action in the next legislative session countering what the new laws change.
“If the laws were implemented the way they were intended and the way they were worded, there would be de-escalation,” Hunter said. “There would be … understanding that you can’t just go in and start manhandling people, but that doesn’t mean that you don’t go and investigate things and get the facts.”