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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Chief explains what will – and won’t – change for Spokane police under new laws

Spokane Police Department Chief Craig Meidl answers questions after a press conference hosted and attended by nearly 20 Eastern Washington law enforcement agencies attend at CenterPlace Regional Event Center in Spokane Valley, Wash. on July 22, 2021.   (Libby Kamrowski/The Spokesman-Review)
By Adam Shanks and Nico Portuondo The Spokesman-Review

One by one, Spokane police Chief Craig Meidl reviewed the myriad police reforms adopted by the state Legislature this year.

The new requirement that an officer intervene and report when a colleague uses excessive force?

The Spokane Police Department already had such a policy, and recently strengthened its language.

Prohibition on the use of military equipment?

Little of Spokane’s police equipment would be subject to the new requirement.

A ban on unannounced “no-knock” search warrants?

Only one has occurred in Spokane in the last 20 years, according to Meidl.

As the chief reviewed the lengthy slate of changes to policing in a presentation to the Spokane City Council, he appeared largely unfazed by the mountain of police reform taking effect.

So why, City Council members wondered, was Meidl among the 20 sheriffs and police chiefs gathered for a press conference, where Spokane County Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich and others railed against the Legislature’s reform efforts and said they would weaken officers’ ability to do their job?

“Misinformation got out there, and the community is scared, because it sounded like this new law was taking away all your power, the sky is falling,” Councilwoman Betsy Wilkerson said. “Now there’s misinterpretation, and people are living in fear. What type of messaging will we be doing to get the correct information out there to the people and to our law officers to do this work?”

Meidl reiterated the concerns laid out by himself and numerous other police leaders across Washington, especially related to the new rules in detaining potential suspects.

Under the old laws, officers could detain a suspect under “reasonable suspicion,” or a step lower of justification for police action than probable cause.

Meidl said reasonable suspicion would allow officers to detain a potential suspect under limited information, like a single 911 call describing the incident or potential suspect, while officers conduct further investigation.

But with the legislation changes, officers have to establish probable cause to detain someone, which can take a few minutes of police investigation once officers arrive to a scene.

Meidl cited an incident on Wednesday on how this can be a headache to officers.

SPD officers responded to an assault call in north Spokane that reported a male was grabbing a female and attempting to pull her from a vehicle.

When police arrived, they saw a female and male matching the description but no assault was occurring. The male started walking away when he saw the officers.

Meidl said officers at the scene had reasonable suspicion that a crime occurred and that the male was the suspect. But, because no crime was visibly happening, they couldn’t stop him from leaving because of the new rules.

“For those who are no longer willing to stay until you can establish probable cause … you can’t use force; they can flee,” Meidl said.

Officers eventually established probable cause that the male was the person grabbing the woman through steps like speaking to the victim and other witnesses, and even found out that there was a court order barring him from being in the area.

But the suspect had already run away, and SPD had to use extra resources to establish a perimeter and eventually chase the male through neighborhood yards.

The male was caught and arrested without incident, according to an SPD news release. Meidl said that sharing the details of the incident educates the public on what officers can or, in this case, cannot do because of the new legislation.

Rep. Jesse Johnson, D-Federal Way, the co-sponsor of several police reform bills that passed the state Legislature this year, said that, while Meidl is correct in saying police couldn’t forcibly detain the potential suspect under reasonable suspicion, they can still take actions to pursue and corner him under the new laws.

“There’s a middle ground between using force and letting them go,” Johnson said.

Johnson also said that, if the suspect used force when officers were pursuing him, officers would be allowed to use proportionate and reasonable force back, even if probable cause is not established.

Johnson said the change to officers only being allowed to use force initially on a suspect under probable cause is to prevent someone who is actually not the suspect from getting detained. Those situations can get messy and dangerous for an innocent person and the officers, especially if that person resists, according to Johnson.

Spokane City Council President Breean Beggs described probable cause as still “pretty easy to establish,” and said the legislature essentially decided “one of the worst things we can do in our country is use force against someone who has done nothing wrong.”

“I totally understand it’s going to take a while for officers to get the new line, but it’s not a drastic line,” Beggs said.

But in other areas, Meidl is less concerned about legislative changes.

New legislation that prohibits police departments from using military equipment applies mostly to munitions and weapons platforms, not protective gear like helmets and vests. Anything the Spokane Police Department purchased through the military surplus program wasn’t covered by the changes, Meidl explained.

“Again, this one’s not going to have a huge impact on us,” he said.

The same bill requires police officers to be identifiable. The officers on tactical and SWAT teams weren’t, but that’s been fixed.

The same bill prohibits vehicle chases, except in circumstances where there is probable cause that a person inside the vehicle committed a violent crime, or there is a reasonable suspicion that the driver is under the influence. Spokane updated its vehicle pursuit policy about a year and a half ago to limit vehicle pursuits.

“This will make a little of a change in Spokane; not significant, though,” Meidl said.

Beggs backed up Wilkerson’s assessment. He noted the laws were passed after consultation with mayors, police chiefs, and unions.

“It seems like whether it was intended or not, there was a bit of fear mongering going on in the blogosphere and mediasphere out there, and I don’t think that’s what we want to do,” Beggs said.