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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Washington lawmakers reach deal that would restrict use of tear gas unless elected officials OK it

Police in downtown Spokane deploy tear gas on May 31 on Main Avenue following the looting of the Nike Store.  (Libby Kamrowski/THE SPOKESMAN-REVEW)
By Adam Shanks and Laurel Demkovich The Spokesman-Review

OLYMPIA – It may become harder for law enforcement to use tear gas in Washington, if a new agreement among lawmakers passes.

The state House of Representatives and Senate on Thursday ironed out details on police reform bills involving tactics used by officers. After a disagreement over the use of tear gas, the new proposal will head back to the full House and Senate for final appproval .

Before Thursday’s agreement, the House version of the bill would have allowed tear gas for public riots if there was a serious risk of harm. The Senate then passed a different version that would allow it only for riots in correctional facilities. The compromise allows law enforcement to use tear gas for public riots only after getting approval from the highest elected official in the jurisdiction. For a city police department, that would be the mayor, and for the State Patrol, that would be the governor.

Prior to tear gas being deployed, the officer must announce once that it will be used, according to the agreed amendment.

In a conference committee meeting Thursday, Sen. Jamie Pedersen, D-Seattle, called the use of tear gas “a very sticky subject.” Although he would prefer a flat ban of tear gas, Pedersen said he is comfortable that someone who is accountable to voters would have to sign off on its use on the public.

When one chamber refuses to concur on amendments made on a bill in another chamber, lawmakers have an option to go to a conference committee where they can reach an agreement. The committee then recommends an agreed upon amendment to the full body, which must agree with the amendment or the bill does not pass.

The Washington State Sheriffs’ Association quickly voiced concern with the new language Thursday.

In a letter to Rep. Jesse Johnson, Grant County Sheriff Tom Jones argued that requiring sheriffs to obtain permission to use tear gas from a county executive or elected official would conflict with existing state law, creating a “separation of powers issue.”

A sheriff, according to state law, is the “chief executive officer and conservator of the peace of the county.” The sheriff’s obligations, the law states, include suppressing “all affrays, riots, unlawful assemblies and insurrections.”

“Furthermore, we are concerned that untrained, non-law enforcement personnel will be making tactical decisions that affect the safety of Sheriff’s deputies and the public,” Jones wrote.

Spokane County Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich agrees with the Sheriffs’ Association’s stance, according to spokesperson Mark Gregory.

“It’s in direct conflict with (state law),” Gregory said.

Pedersen told The Spokesman-Review the association’s constitutional argument was a valid concern. He called it an “overreading of the breadth of the sheriff’s authority” as stated in the state constitution, as other things, such as body cameras and funding, need to be approved by the Legislature.

The tear gas question was part of a bigger bill that would ban or limit other police tactics. Under the bill, chokeholds and neck restraints are prohibited. It also bans agencies from acquiring certain types of military equipment, including machine guns, armed helicopters or tanks. It also establishes restrictions on the use of vehicle pursuits and police dogs.

The bill passed in both chambers but was awaiting agreement on tear gas before final approval. The new version will have to be approved by both chambers on the floor before heading to Gov. Jay Inslee’s desk for his signature.

Although most Republicans voted against the bill in both the House and Senate , the tear gas fix passed unanimously Thursday out of a conference committee made up of four Democrats and two Republicans.

Rep. Gina Mosbrucker, R-Goldendale, said in the committee that she appreciated the bipartisan, bicameral efforts behind the police tactics bills, which she said were “very trying.”

“I think it’s really important that we work together on this,” she told Pedersen, the Democratic chair of the conference committee. “Grateful for your concession and hearing what we had to say.”

It’s unclear how many Republicans will vote for final passage when it comes to the floor.

The amendment language prohibits an officer from using tear gas “unless necessary to alleviate a present risk of serious harm.” Officers must also exhaust all alternatives before turning to tear gas.

Spokane City Council President Breean Beggs, a longtime advocate for police reform and accountability, supported the bill and said he was comfortable with the compromise language but would add “bodily” before “harm” to make the standard clearer.

Tear gas was one of several methods used by Spokane Police to disperse demonstrators at the May 31 protest over the death of George Floyd. The protest prompted Beggs to propose a suite of reforms, several of which have now been addressed by the Legislature.

Spokane Mayor Nadine Woodward strongly preferred the compromise language to an outright ban on the use of tear gas.

“I think the good thing with this measure though is that it gives local control back to cities that know their communities,” Woodward said.

Woodward expressed confidence in her relationship with Police Chief Craig Meidl and her ability to make an informed decision in the event that the use of tear gas is considered.

“I was in the police command center during the summer on several occasions and we talked those things through each and every time,” Woodward said, referring to protests last year.

Meidl said he and Woodward both aim to keep the city safe, and the new requirement likely wouldn’t change the circumstances necessary for the department to deploy tear gas.

However, Meidl said “the delay waiting for approval adds layers that may allow unnecessary harm or damage to continue until approval is received.”

The police tactics bill was part of a larger police accountability package proposed by Democrats this session. Most bills have passed and are awaiting Inslee’s signature. Those include bills creating a statewide use-of-force database, establishing a decertification process for officers who use excessive force and requiring officers to intervene when they see another officer use excessive force.

Sen. Manka Dhingra, D-Redmond, told reporters Wednesday the proposals that passed will change how policing is done in Washington.

“Change always makes people nervous, but this is change for the better,” she said.

Beggs lauded legislators for adopting a suite of police reforms this spring after “almost no police reform kind of bills the last few years.”

“We’re going to be leading the nation,” Beggs said.

Laurel Demkovich's reporting for The Spokesman-Review is funded in part by Report for America and by members of the Spokane community. This story can be republished by other organizations for free under a Creative Commons license. For more information on this, please contact our newspaper’s managing editor.