Lawmakers aim to adjust and refine police accountability laws passed during 2021 session

For the second year in a row, Washington legislators will be visiting the issue of police accountability.

Instead of making sweeping changes like last year, however, House Democrats are focused on clarifying and refining aspects of the laws passed in 2021 after law enforcement agencies said they are now unable to perform certain duties.

Speaker of the House Laurie Jinkins, D-Tacoma, told The News Tribune editorial board last week that after the implementation of the bills in July, legislators heard an “outcry” over three topics from law enforcement: less-lethal alternatives, use of force, and probable cause.

Three bills to clarify those existing laws had public hearings in the House Public Safety Committee on Tuesday.

House Bill 1719 will address the issue of less-lethal alternatives and was introduced by Rep. Dan Bronoske, D-Lakewood.

Legislation passed last year banned police departments from acquiring and using military equipment, but the language of that law unintentionally banned officers from using less-lethal alternatives such as beanbags, rubber bullets and sponges. Bronoske said the new bill will provide clarity to law enforcement agencies so that they will still be able to use less-lethal options when necessary.

Multiple police chiefs testified in favor of the fix, and some admitted they had accidentally overlooked the terminology during shareholder meetings last year. Lawmakers, too, have admitted to overlooking the implications of the original bill during negotiations.

House Bill 1735 will clarify when law enforcement can use force and has been introduced by Rep. Jesse Johnson, D-Federal Way.

Some law enforcement agencies misinterpreted the legislation passed last year in HB 1310 to mean that they could no longer respond to mental health calls. The state Attorney General’s Office issued a letter last August, days after the law was implemented, saying the new use-of-force law didn’t prevent officers from responding to “community caretaking calls.”

The new legislation also will clarify when enforcement officers can use force, particularly with calls for welfare checks, behavioral health issues, child welfare and involuntary treatment.

Jinkins described the last fix as the “most challenging of the bills.”

House Bill 1726 deals with the issue of probable cause related to criminal investigations, and was introduced by Roger Goodman, D-Kirkland. Goodman, chair of the House Public Safety Committee, explained the reasoning behind the fix during testimony on Tuesday.

He said that police agencies reported having difficulty with “proactive policing” when there is no probable cause but there is reasonable suspicion.

“We are attempting to allow for the use of force, which is still constrained by the reasonable care standard,” Goodman said.

He said the bill doesn’t roll back HB 1310, but adjusts it slightly. “We really are concerned about serious offenses: murder, armed robbery, aggravated assault, [and] domestic violence where police really need to secure the scene and physically restrain parties before they have that level of probable cause to arrest.”

He acknowledged the new bill is controversial on both sides and doesn’t seem to have much support.

Many signed in at the public hearing as other or opposed.

Enoka Herat, from the ACLU of Washington, said the organization does not support the measure.

“A year ago this committee took a meaningful step to reduce police violence by passing 1310,” she said. “By contrast, 1726 expands the use of physical force based only on reasonable suspicion. Reasonable suspicion is the lowest standard of proof.”

She said the bill is harmful and gives police officers more leeway to harm people.

All three bills have an emergency clause that would make the laws go into effect immediately after they are signed by the governor.

Jinkins said the motivation for last year’s police accountability package was a “significant percentage of Washingtonians losing faith in law enforcement,” and that legislators were trying to rebuild trust between citizens and law enforcement. In some communities they were aiming to “build trust that never existed in the first place,” she said.

She noted too that fatal police encounters are at a five-year low, so she believes the state is heading in the right direction.

House Minority Leader J.T. Wilcox, R-Yelm, said at a press conference last week that most lawmakers agree they need to improve the relationship between police and citizens, but he still criticized last year’s process.

“I think every single one of the fixes that are going to be implemented could have been implemented last year via amendments that were offered and rejected,” he said.

At the press conference, Senate Minority Leader John Braun, R-Centralia, said he doesn’t think “there’s a single right answer” to the question of whether or not to fix previous bills or throw them out altogether.

Braun has introduced legislation that would repeal the use of force laws from last session. Senate Bill 5675 adds a new section to the law that an officer may use “all necessary means” to arrest someone who tries to flee or resist.

So far that bill has 13 other Republican senators as co-sponsors. It has not been heard in committee.

This story was originally published by The News Tribune.