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Shawn Vestal: The tale of Washington’s police reforms is far from complete

Police respond to a stabbing Friday night on West Second Avenue in downtown Spokane. James Speelman, 27, was arrested for suspicion of first-degree assault and the victim was taken to a local hospital for life-threatening stab wounds, according to the Spokane Police Department.  (Courtesy of KHQ's Guy Tannenbaum)

Has police reform produced a dangerous crime wave across Washington?

To hear law enforcement leaders and reform opponents tell it, the answer is an unqualified yes. In a mere six months, the story goes, crime is rising all over the state for one reason, and one reason only: Police now must have a slightly stronger certainty about the need to use force on criminal suspects than they did before.

But we don’t have statewide crime data for last year yet, and the local data we do have is mixed.

“Nobody can say that yet,” said Martina Morris, a professor emeritus of statistics and sociology from the University of Washington and advocate of the state’s reform laws. “Those data won’t be available until April, probably.”

On the other hand, Morris said, there is one set of data from last year that’s complete, and it suggests a much different impact.

The number of people killed by police dropped by 60% – from 50 in 2020 to 20 last year, according to data Morris tracks for Next Steps Washington, a coalition supporting police reform.

“It’s the single biggest drop in Washington state” in the 22 years the figures have been tracked, she said. “It is very unusual.”

Morris says there is reason to believe that Washington’s reform laws – which were accompanied by high-profile public cases of police officers being charged with murder – had a direct influence on that statistic, in part because police shootings across the country did not show a similar drop and because the drop was not part of a preexisting trend.

By comparison, she said, the examples of crime increases – including some in Spokane – that critics of the reforms have offered, even if they are eventually borne out by the overall state numbers, are part of a nationwide trend that at least suggests the possibility that the reasons might be more complex and numerous than one change in the law.

Serious violent crimes surged in cities all across the country last year, after all, and Washington was the only state in the union to pass the reforms.

In other words, there’s good reason to withhold judgment on the cause-and-effect story about police reform in Washington state.

Legislation proposed to undo last year’s reforms is being heard in committees, and supporters of the bills are describing a state where lawlessness rules. The police can no longer protect the innocent, lawmakers were told. Officers’ hands are tied – they are doubtful and not decisive. They can’t chase suspects or make stops.

This is more or less the argument that sheriffs and police chiefs, as well as opponents of use-of-force reforms, made since the start, when they began telling people the sky was falling last summer.

The change they’re decrying boils down to the difference between “probable cause” and “reasonable suspicion.”

Before the law took effect, police were authorized to use force or give chase if they had “reasonable” belief that force was necessary to protect people or make an arrest. The reasonable-officer standard is a long-standing legal line, and one that grants an extraordinary leeway to what seems “reasonable” to an officer in the heat of the moment.

Under the new law, officers must have “probable cause” to use force or give chase. It is a higher standard of proof – you can arrest someone with probable cause, but not reasonable suspicion.

“Frankly in all my years of service I’ve never seen any legislation that has a more dramatic negative impact on effective crime control and policing and capturing criminals,” Whatcom County Sheriff Bill Elfo told the Senate Law and Justice Committee last week. “Probable cause is a fairly high legal standard that represents a radical departure from long-standing precedent and the body of case law. It requires more than a hunch or suspicion.”

Requiring more than a hunch or suspicion is, of course, exactly what the reform was meant to do. In the case of the bill before the committee last week – SB5919 – the changes would actually do more than just roll back the law, but would go even further than previous laws in expanding the legal use of force, said Enoka Herat of the ACLU.

Mayor Nadine Woodward spoke in favor of rolling back the reforms, saying in the city of Spokane shootings went up 62% since the laws took effect, and pointing to other categories of rising crime over the six months.

“Since those laws went into effect, the city of Spokane has seen a dangerous surge in crime,” she said.

Woodward’s choice of statistics did not reflect the fact that 2021 ended with a 7.7% overall decline in crime reports in Spokane – a figure that included increases in violent crime (with the exception of murder, which dropped) and decreases in property crime.

The first months of the year have trended upward over 2021 in most categories, but the overall number of crimes reported in the second week of February is lower than it was in 2020, 2019 and 2018.

It goes without saying that there were no new laws restricting the use of force in those years.

Drawing a single, simple story from this mass of numbers is misleading, to put it mildly. And when it comes to the statewide figures – and the impact of this statewide law – we don’t even have the numbers yet.

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