One of our biggest successes – guarding the majority of the community from the quantity and scope of violence we respond to on a daily basis – may also be one of our biggest failures. Spokane police officers contact hundreds of people each and every day, many in dangerous, uncertain and dynamic situations. The community mandates that we arrest those who have violated the law, even those who do not want to go to jail. Many who have violated the rights of another will go to great lengths to avoid going to jail, up to and including directing resistance and violence toward officers. In our efforts to protect the community from the realities of police work, we have allowed the void to be filled with emotional decisions and proposals that will have a negative effect on the safety of our community.
The Spokane Police Department strives to ensure its response to criminal activity is met with the right tools and techniques needed to complete an arrest. SPD has recommitted itself over the past decade to improving stringent policies and training procedures on the correct use of force, de-escalation and the appropriateness of those actions. Those changes are based on extensive and ongoing community, academic, and other third-party review and input. We continue to evolve and use data-driven research, not emotion, to stay at the forefront of best practices.
There is much at stake this legislative session. House Bill 1054 significantly limits or disallows many tools that law enforcement agencies across the state rely on to bring perpetrators of crime to justice. Chemical agents, with no permanent or long-term effects, used to extract violent criminals from barricaded locations, or to quell destructive rioters … gone. Police K-9 teams, a vital tool in helping police track and locate evasive persons, recover contraband and find missing persons … no longer allowed. Neck restraints – often confused with a chokehold – are a highly effective de-escalation tactic that has never resulted in a serious injury or death in Spokane … no longer authorized. Protective equipment, like helmets and munitions suppressors, essential for effective police work and officer safety … eliminated with the stroke of a pen.
In the absence of these valuable tools and tactics, already regulated and only authorized in specific and limited circumstances, officers will have to revert to other tactics that may put them and others at greater risk. Removal of intermediate interventions leaves officers fewer options to safely resolve dangerously volatile situations. Arrests will take longer to accomplish, injuries to officers and suspects will increase and unfortunately so may the prospect of more officer-involved shootings. Additionally, as officers wait for the backup needed with fewer tools, the community will suffer.
Another bill of concern is House Bill 1202, which seeks to remove qualified immunity protections for law enforcement. Some mistakenly believe qualified immunity is a special immunity for police that insulates them from liability cases.
This is false; qualified immunity can only be granted by a state or federal judge, and only after hearing from the plaintiff. It is a first step to limit harassing and retaliatory lawsuits. If the judge determines the complaint brought forward does not warrant civil action, he or she can make a determination that no civil recourse follows – judges err on the side of allowing a trial to proceed if there is doubt.
Qualified immunity is rarely exercised, but it gives officers the peace of mind of knowing that if what they do is reasonable, or not yet established by law, they will be protected from unnecessary lawsuits. Without this protection, officers may hesitate when we need them most.
I’ve thought long and hard about how to inform the community without sounding like the apocalypse is coming, but there’s no tactful way to do that. Injuries for all will certainly go up, shootings may increase with fewer tools available to control violent subjects, and crime will increase as officers wait for more backup before inserting themselves into a situation in which the tools available to them have diminished. The removal of the tools in these proposed bills will certainly create more dangerous situations and result in the opposite of what the bills seeks to accomplish.
The majority of our officers see their work as a calling. They respond overwhelmingly in an appropriate and professional manner.
They deserve our support and protection for willingly placing themselves between us and danger. Let’s hold accountable those who betray this public trust, while protecting those who overwhelmingly serve with professionalism and integrity every single day.
Craig Meidl is chief of the Spokane Police Department.