By Sen. Jeff Holy
There is an old saying: “Be careful what you wish for. You might get it.”
This definitely can apply to the police “reform” laws passed by the Legislature and signed by Gov. Jay Inslee this year. Notably: House Bill 1054 limits police tactics and equipment, and House Bill 1310 restricts use of force by law enforcement and corrections officers. Already, these two sets of major changes are causing problems for law-enforcement officers in Washington in their efforts to maintain public safety.
Much debate is playing out in the media between proponents and critics of the police reform legislation. This is the same debate legislators started last January, and one that was seemingly ignored. When law enforcement officers, agencies and associations share their concerns – it pays (sometimes dearly) to listen.
You may have read news in July about a man stealing a bus from a small business. Employees witnessed the man steal the bus. Chelan County deputies responded and tried to pull the bus over – but could not pursue due to the new law. After receiving a description from a 911 call, police used to have the ability to pursue and hold the suspect. With HB 1054 in effect, however, police now need probable cause. In this case, the man continued to drive the bus, then took a front-loader and drove it into the home of his estranged wife.
Debate doesn’t happen in a vacuum. In fact, I offered Senate Amendment 581 to HB 1054, which would have allowed for vehicular pursuit of a suspect under “reasonable suspicion” to avoid these situations. But it was rejected on a party-line vote. In other words, this was a choice by the Legislature’s majorities: Be prepared for more headlines of limited response to criminal behavior.
Bizarrely, other elements of these new laws are so vague that they demand less-than-lethal intervention, but actually ban that kind of intervention (use of beanbag-shot to immobilize suspects, but banning the use of its .50 caliber cartridge) that restricts less-than-lethal options.
The authors of these laws have turned to the state Attorney General’s Office to issue guidance later this year – until the Legislature can correct it.
These new laws come at a time when overall crime in our state has increased. Look at these numbers:
• The number of reported murders in 2020 (302) was the highest in the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs’ database, going back to 1980. Murder numbers have increased by nearly 82% over the past five years.
• The state’s 2019 rape statistics were the highest in 25 years.
• The 2020 figure for aggravated assault was the highest in 25 years.
• The 2020 figures on assault of law enforcement officers and no contact or probation violations are the highest that WASPC has recorded.
In King County, home to Seattle and a majority of the HB 1310 and HB 1054 sponsors, a new report shows a rise in gun violence in the first half of 2021, with 580 total shots-fired incidents during the first six months. That is about a 33% increase over the four-year average between 2017 and 2020. The report revealed a 61% increase in shooting victims.
While crime is rising, the law enforcement numbers are shrinking in our state. Washington ranks 51st out of the 50 states and the District of Columbia for the number of law enforcement officers per 1,000 people. The reality is, many communities throughout our state are seeing officers leave departments, with fewer officers coming in to replace them.
Recently, a group of 20 sheriffs and police chiefs from throughout Eastern Washington, including Spokane County Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich and Spokane Police Department Chief Craig Meidl, took part in a news conference in Spokane to share its concerns about these reforms.
When you have more crime, along with new state laws that are more lenient toward criminals and smaller police departments, you have a recipe for a public-safety disaster. Now, when a victim or witness calls 911 to report a crime, it will take longer for law enforcement to respond. When officers do show up, their response might be restricted by these new “police reform” laws.
We’re beginning to see how badly these consequences affect law-enforcement officers and the citizens they are hired to protect.
Sen. Jeff Holy, R-Cheney, represents Washington state’s 6th Legislative District. He is an attorney and retired Spokane police officer.
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