WENATCHEE — The Washington Sheriff’s Association is requesting a special legislative session to clarify “confusing” language in recently enacted police reform laws.
In a letter to Gov. Jay Inslee, Grant County Sheriff and association president Tom Jones said the new legislation is open to many interpretations, which reduces the ability for officers to respond to calls.
“The best way to provide clarity is to fix the laws, and we believe a special session by the legislature is needed and warranted this year,” Jones wrote. “Public safety is too important to allow continued confusion.”
The letter was sent to Inlsee on Monday and released to the public Friday afternoon. A spokesman for Inslee said there are no plans for a special session.
“We strongly disagree with some of the interpretations of these new laws coming from some localities, and efforts are underway to provide more education on what these policies do,” said Mike Faulk, an Inslee spokesman. “We remain open to listening to people’s criticisms but, when applied appropriately, these laws will improve both accountability and public safety.”
A dozen police reform laws went into effect July 25, causing fundamental shifts in procedures and tactics. Notably, police must develop probable cause for arrest before detaining a suspect for questioning, vehicle pursuits are prohibited in most circumstances and it’s now easier for police to lose their peace officer certifications.
To discuss the changes and field questions from the public, the Chelan County Sheriff’s Office hosted six town hall meetings this month from Wenatchee to Chelan to Plain. More than 1,000 people attended the Aug. 2 meeting at Grace City Church in Wenatchee where Sheriff Brian Burnett implored attendees to contact politicians in an effort to amend the laws.
“People ask ‘What can we do? What can we do?’” Burnett said. “It’s time to stand up, it’s time to be heard. It is time to say what is important to you for your community.”
While Burnett and his fellow sheriffs say the changes go too far, Chelan County’s top public defender said they are needed fixes and that the response to the changes by law enforcement — many of whom are staunchly opposed to the new bills — has been exaggerated.
“In my opinion, the reaction by the police is ... a lot of misinformation,” said Jeremy Ford, executive director of the Counsel for Defense of Chelan County. “I’m not quite sure their reason for doing so other than to create fear in the public.”
Deputies speaking at the meetings often used worst-case or shocking scenarios to explain the changes, like homicide, an intruder standing over a baby crib, and an increase in discarded syringe needles.
“The squeaky wheel gets the oil so they’re out there trying to get these people scared to be like, ‘Wow, I need to vote because they can’t arrest people and all this crime’s happened that’s going unpunished,’” Ford said. “Well, It’s not.”
Ford elaborated by honing in on a change to the drug possession law, which, after it was ruled unconstitutional earlier this year by the state Supreme Court, was downgraded from a felony to a misdemeanor.
“Possession of drugs is not a crime against other people,” Ford said. “You know, it’s a crime you’re committing essentially on yourself.”
But another defense attorney, Nick Yedinak, said the laws go too far.
“I think they’re unnecessary. I think it’s overreach. And I think that it just hinders law enforcement from doing their job,” Yedinak said. He added, “I think that’s putting too much on law enforcement to do their job and investigate situations.”
Confusion and ambiguity surrounding recently enacted police legislation may otherwise persist until spring when lawmakers are expected to clarify what one official described as “vague” bill language, said Douglas County Prosecuting Attorney Gordon Edgar.
“With both law enforcement, as well as prosecutors, there certainly is some language that is not clear,” Edgar said. “And there are some impacts of the new laws that I don’t believe were anticipated by the legislature that I hope will be cleared up.”
As an example, Edgar described House Bill 1310, which prohibits the use of physical force without probable cause to arrest.
“Before the standard was that if an officer had reasonable suspicion, he could use physical force to, let’s say, handcuff somebody, while he continued the investigation,” Edgar said. He noted that the drafter of the bill has since said that was an unintended outcome. “And so you have officers who are rightly interpreting that they cannot use physical force when they’re investigating a crime, and so you have some crimes that really can’t be investigated because the people have left the area or because they can’t be detained.”
Another frustration, he said, is that “physical force” is not defined in the statute. The state Criminal Justice Training Center released a recommendation, but there are also some federal cases that reference physical force.
“And they’re not vastly different but they’re a little bit different — enough to cause concern,” Edgar said.
While confusion remains prominent, some language has received clarification.
After the bills went into effect, the North Central Washington Law Enforcement Leadership group — made up of the heads of the Chelan County Sheriff’s Office, Douglas County Sheriff’s Office, Wenatchee Police Department and East Wenatchee Police Department — said in a statement that, among other concerns, police may not be able to respond to caretaking calls.
The state Attorney General’s Office on Aug. 2 released an analysis of House Bill 1310 and concluded the bill does not prohibit police from responding to community caretaking calls, including mental health calls.