At a BLM protest, a Black person in a black hoodie stands center frame with hands raised, their mouth covered in duct tape with the words "I can't breathe" written on it. Other protesters flank this person and police in riot gear can be seen in the background.

One Month On, Washington Police Reforms Get Mixed Reviews at Local Forum

by Ashley Archibald

Content Warning: This article contains brief mention of suicide.

On July 25, a series of laws banning police departments from using chokeholds, neck restraints, and no-knock warrants, and restricting the use of tear gas and military equipment went into effect in Washington State. 

The laws were part of a wave of legislation reacting to the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis Police officer Derek Chauvin and the months of subsequent nationwide protest that followed. 

Locally, Seattle City Council talked about, but ultimately did not follow through on, significant monetary cuts to the police budget.

Law enforcement representatives have argued that the new Washington State laws are confusing at best and contradictory at worst. Proponents of the reforms point to a 50% decrease in the number of deadly encounters with police since passage of Initiative 940 alone, which created new standards for police education and when police can be held accountable for killing someone.

On Sept. 2, the League of Women Voters of Seattle-King County (LWVSKC) hosted an online forum where  law enforcement , those charged with training new officers, advocates of police reform, and the mother of a man killed by law enforcement spoke about the changes more than a month after they took effect.

LWVSKC committed to analyzing these reforms in a series of forums because the organization supported them, said Heather Kelly, LWVSKC co-president.

“We believe it’s important to monitor the laws we endorse,” Kelly said, kicking off the third of such forums, moderated by KUOW reporter Amy Radil.

Reactions of those on the panel were mixed. While some police interactions have been minimized, other things like restrictions on certain kinds of firearms have caused problems for some law enforcement agencies. The Department of Fish & Wildlife (DFW), for instance, uses 50-caliber shotguns to shoot bean bags and non-lethal rounds at animals. That’s no longer allowed under state law.

“Nobody caught [the fact that the law would prevent DFW from using non-lethal rounds on animals], nobody pointed it out, and so we missed that, and we’ll have to fix that,” said Rep. Roger Goodman (D-Kirkland), who supported the legislation.

Goodman also said that although police departments are expressing “some discomfort with” the landmark legislation passed this year, and some adjustment to the laws might be needed,  police reform remains a top priority for the legislature.

“It’s been a long story. Not just this year, not just Initiative 940 but everything that led up to it, and we have more work to do,” Goodman said.

The implementation of the new laws has also reportedly caused confusion about when law enforcement can and should intervene, particularly in mental health situations. HB 1310, for example, states law enforcement can only use force in very specific instances.

That’s a problem according to Jan Tokumoto, chief operating officer of Frontier Behavioral Health, a nonprofit healthcare organization that provides mental health services in Eastern Washington, who says health care workers can’t do their jobs without law enforcement. “One of the unintended consequences is that there are a lot of people who are acutely mentally ill that are at risk that we are not able to take into our custody because our designated crisis responders are not able to do that without assistance of law enforcement,” Tokumoto said.

Tukwila police allegedly declined to respond on Aug. 1 to emergency calls from workers at Cascade Behavioral Health (Cascade), an inpatient psychiatric facility that was at the time experiencing a crisis involving a patient who had caused injuries to staff. According to Cascade technician Eiob Teklie, “We called Tukwila police, 911, three times … All those times they say, ‘sorry we cannot come to the building.’”

One Shoreline firefighter, Gabe DeBay, recently stated in a King 5 article that he believes the new law might cause officers to hesitate, weighing the potential threat to their careers when deciding whether to intervene in, to use his example, a suicide. 

“It will put us at risk, it’s going to put the public at risk,” DeBay told King 5. “There’s already been situations where normally the police department would come to be our backup, and they have not responded. That’s scary.”

Others say the problem is not the law but poor communication about — or incorrect interpretations of — the law’s provisions. 

“We need to be clear: they can continue to do the work they did before,” Goodman said. The law defined what use of force means, he explained, and it doesn’t preclude law enforcement from involuntary mental health holds or taking children from abusive situations.

Leslie Cushman, an advocate who fought for I-940, agrees. The “Involuntary Treatment Act” still exists, she said. That law allows police to detain and transport vulnerable people to facilities.

“The [Attorney General] said the law does not prohibit law enforcement from detaining, and detaining means you touch people and then transport, you have to have hands on to transport under the Involuntary Treatment Act,” Cushman said.

In fact, the summary for HB 1310 states that “a peace officer may use physical force against another person when necessary to: protect against criminal conduct where there is probable cause to make an arrest; effect an arrest; prevent an escape; or protect against an imminent threat of bodily injury to the peace officer, another person, or the person against whom force is being used.”

This would seem to indicate that when an individual is at risk of harming themselves or others — as the Cascade patient apparently was in the Aug. 1 incident — or when an individual is at risk of injury from others, police can in fact physically intervene.

While the reforms enacted in the 2021 legislative session may need further clarification or updating, Goodman said they are a step toward making communities safer and avoiding fatal interactions with police. 

“The relationships we established between law enforcement and the communities they serve provided the foundation for further work which we have just accomplished,” Goodman said.

Many agreed that regardless, it will take more than one month to see how the new laws are truly working. 

Additional reporting by Emerald staff.

Ashley Archibald is the editor of Real Change News and a freelance journalist with previous work in the Santa Monica Daily Press and the Union Democrat. Her work focuses on policy and economic development, and you can find it in the South Seattle Emerald, KNKX, and the Urbanist.

📸 Featured image is attributed to Kelly Kline under a Creative Commons 2.0 license.

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