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Some police reform changes become law with Inslee’s signature; others still under consideration

March 4, 2022 Updated Fri., March 4, 2022 at 10:52 p.m.

FILE - Lynnwood police Officer Denis Molloy works in his vehicle, Wednesday, Nov. 17, 2021, in Lynnwood, Wash. Molloy is part of the Lynnwood Police Department's community health and safety section. Washington Gov. Jay Inslee has signed two bills fixing parts of a sweeping package of police reform measures that lawmakers passed last year. One makes clear officers may use force to help detain or transport people in behavioral health crisis, while the other fixes an oversight that seemed to inadvertently prohibit police departments from possessing certain less-lethal weapons.  (Gene Johnson)
FILE - Lynnwood police Officer Denis Molloy works in his vehicle, Wednesday, Nov. 17, 2021, in Lynnwood, Wash. Molloy is part of the Lynnwood Police Department's community health and safety section. Washington Gov. Jay Inslee has signed two bills fixing parts of a sweeping package of police reform measures that lawmakers passed last year. One makes clear officers may use force to help detain or transport people in behavioral health crisis, while the other fixes an oversight that seemed to inadvertently prohibit police departments from possessing certain less-lethal weapons. (Gene Johnson)

OLYMPIA – Two bills that would tweak police reform measures passed last year are now law after Gov. Jay Inslee signed them Friday.

Two other, more controversial bills, dealing with the definition of “use of force,” still are making their way through the Legislature.

Inslee on Friday signed a bill that clarifies the use of physical force against a person who needs mental health assistance. He signed another bill that allows law enforcement agencies to use and acquire ammunition of .50 caliber or greater and other types of firearms of .50 caliber or greater.

“When we take steps forwards, we learn and we improve,” Inslee said Friday. “I’m glad legislators have had an open mind to listen to what is actually happening in the field and to respond.”

After the Legislature passed a sweeping package of police reform legislation last year, law enforcement agencies expressed concern that officers were unable to do their jobs under the new rules. They pushed for clarity on a number of topics, including the use of force, vehicular pursuits and military equipment.

Most people could agree that more clarity was needed to allow officers to use physical force to respond to mental health calls. But disagreement remained on the definition of physical force for other types of calls.

Families of those killed by police say law enforcement agencies are exaggerating their confusion with the laws because they don’t want to change.

One bill that passed 32-16 in the state Senate on Friday would define “physical force,” something not clearly defined in last year’s laws, and when it can be used. All senators whose district includes Spokane County supported the bill.

All those voting against the bill were Democrats as many took issue with the language indicating when an officer can use physical force to stop a person from fleeing a scene.

A version that passed out of committee would have allowed physical force only when a person is “actively and intentionally” fleeing a scene. That version did not pass the full body. Instead, what passed would remove “intentionally” from that definition, now allowing officers to use physical force to prevent a person from actively fleeing a lawful temporary investigative detention, provided the person has been given notice that they are being detained and not free to leave.

Sen. David Frockt, D-Seattle, said he wished there was more time to consider the well-drafted, smart amendments to the bill. That would have allowed lawmakers to debate the language a bit more.

“Sometimes, the debate can change when people hear the arguments for and against,” said Frockt, who opposed the version of the use-of-force bill that passed.

The bill defines physical force as “any act reasonably likely to cause physical pain or injury or any other act exerted upon a person’s body to compel, control, constrain, or restrain the person’s movement.”

It would allow officers to use physical force against a person to “the extent necessary to protect against a criminal offense when there is probable cause that the person has committed or is committing the offense.”

It also allows physical force to make an arrest, prevent an escape, take a person into custody or to protect against imminent threat of bodily injury.

The version that passed Friday did not have support from families who called changes “rollbacks” even further than where the state was before last year’s reform.

That bill will head to the governor’s desk for final approval.

Another bill that passed the House 86-12 on Friday deals with vehicular pursuits. The bill allows officers to engage in vehicle pursuits when there is “reasonable suspicion” that a person has or is committing a violent offense, a nonviolent sex offense, escape or driving under the influence offense and when not pursuing has serious risk of harm to others. All house members whose district includes Spokane County voted in favor.

A vehicle pursuit must also be necessary for the purpose of identifying or apprehending the person, according to the bill.

Officers engaging in vehicle pursuits would be required to notify a supervising officer immediately upon starting the pursuit.

That bill had support from law enforcement, but families raised concerns about the “reasonable suspicion” bar as it is lower than the “probable cause” bar set forth in last year’s law.

Rep. Roger Goodman, D-Kirkland, said on the floor Friday the bill adds safety requirements for engaging in these chases.

“We need to be mindful that vehicle pursuits are inherently dangerous,” he said.

It would require officers to receive oversight from their supervising officer. It also requires law enforcement to notify other agencies and jurisdictions that may be affected by the pursuit; to communicate with other officers engaging in the pursuit, supervisors and dispatch; to develop a plan to end the pursuit as soon as possible; and to have taken an emergency vehicle operating course.

Unlike the bills still making their way through the Legislature, the two laws signed by Inslee on Friday seem to have support from both political parties.

Coming into the session, one change most people seemed to get behind was clarifying that officers can use physical force to respond to mental health calls, something many officers said they could not do under the laws passed last year.

One bill signed by Inslee allows officers to use physical force against a person to the extent necessary to take a person into custody, transport them for treatment or provide other mental health assistance; to take a minor into protective custody; to execute or enforce an order directing an officer to take someone into custody; or execute a search warrant.

The bill also explicitly states that using reasonable care before using force does not limit officers’ caretaking functions.

That bill passed 90-5 in the House of Representatives and unanimously in the Senate.

The other bill authorizes law enforcement agencies to use and acquire ammunition of .50 caliber or greater and firearms of .50 caliber or greater that are not classified as rifles. The definition of “rifle” does not include any device used to deploy less lethal munitions such as bean bags or sponges.

That bill passed unanimously in the House and Senate.

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.

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