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Police work in the spotlight: Legislation to change law enforcement gains traction; local police chiefs comment

by Angelica Relente, Herald Legislative Writer
| March 24, 2021 1:00 AM

As the Washington Legislature moves past the halfway mark of this year’s session, bills that aim to reform law enforcement agencies also advance day by day. Here is an update on the high-profile bills introduced by Democratic lawmakers who say change is long overdue.

Officer tactics, equipment

House Bill 1054, which would establish requirements for police officer tactics and equipment, moved to the Senate Rules Committee Friday. The House passed the bill on Feb. 27 in a 54-43 vote. The Senate had not voted on the bill’s final passage as of Tuesday.

Under HB 1054, police officers would be prohibited from using chokeholds “in the course of their duties,” according to the bill’s text. Neck restraints would also be prohibited unless there is an apparent imminent threat.

Kieth Siebert, the chief of police in Quincy, said in an interview with the Herald chokeholds are already banned in his department unless an officer comes across a lethal force encounter.

“We don’t want people using chokeholds,” Siebert said. “There’s a proven link between that and death.”

A neck restraint, which is different from a chokehold, is an effective tool and not harmful, Siebert said. It should only be used if an officer has been properly trained and certified.

HB 1054 would require the Criminal Justice Training Commission to create a work group to develop policies regarding K-9 use, according to the bill’s text. Guidelines for the use of tear gas would also be established.

Commenting in an interview with the Herald, Kevin Fuhr, the chief of police in Moses Lake, said he is fine with the prohibitions on chokeholds and neck restraints. He is also OK with the CJTC creating policies for K-9 use, as well as limiting the use of tear gas under certain circumstances.

Law enforcement agencies would be prohibited from acquiring certain military equipment, if HB 1054 becomes law. Parameters would also be implemented for when and if police officers should engage in a vehicular pursuit.

Siebert said there is a “misnomer” or mistaken idea officers patrol streets in armored vehicles, which are usually used by the SWAT team only, and taking armored vehicles away entirely may put officers in harm’s way.

Fuhr said he still has some reservations with the vehicular pursuit portion of HB 1054. State law enforcement agencies are currently working with legislators to fix that, he said.

“If we don’t catch that person, they could come back at a later time and victimize again,” Fuhr said.

Kurt Adkinson, the chief of police in Ephrata, said in an interview with the Herald police officers should have access to the tools necessary to do their job, so they can keep themselves and the public safe.

“I think (HB 1054) is definitely a work in progress,” Adkinson said.

Permissible uses of force

HB 1310, which would create guidelines for permissible uses of force among law enforcement and correctional officers, was referred to the Senate Ways and Means Committee on Friday. The House passed the bill March 6 in a 55-42 vote. The Senate had not voted on its final passage as of Tuesday.

A civil standard for officer use of force would be established under HB 1310. Officers would be able to use physical force when necessary, such as when making an arrest, preventing an escape or protecting against an imminent threat, according to the bill’s text.

Deadly force would only be used when necessary, such as when an imminent threat of serious physical injury or death to another officer or person is obvious, according to the bill’s text.

Fuhr said there are times when officers are asked to take an individual into protective custody. HB 1310 would not give officers the authority to physically put their hands on someone to cuff them, as it is “considered a use of force,” he said.

“Anytime we physically restrain somebody and put them in handcuffs — that’s considered use of force,” Fuhr said.

Siebert said his department has been enforcing de-escalation tactics since he became the chief of police in Quincy. Last year, officers in his department dealt with a man who ran around in public naked without having to use force, he said.

“There’s no rush,” Siebert said. “Time is on our side unless it’s an active shooting.”

The state attorney general would have to establish model policies on the use of force and de-escalation tactics by July 2, 2022, according to the bill’s text. All law enforcement agencies would have to adopt policies consistent with the attorney general’s by Dec. 1, 2022.

Duty to intervene

Senate Bill 5066, which is about a police officer’s responsibility to intervene, was referred to the House Appropriations Committee on Tuesday. The Senate passed the bill Feb. 23 in a 28-21 vote. The House had not voted on its final passage as of Tuesday.

Under SB 5066, officers must intervene when and if they witness another officer performing excessive use of force. Officers must also report to a supervisor when they catch an officer committing wrongdoing, according to the bill’s text.

Siebert said patrol officers in his department had to take a class last year regarding their duty to intervene, so he does not have any problems with SB 5066. The bill ensures officers are treating the public correctly, he said.

“We have the duty to intervene, and we’re doing that now,” Fuhr said. “I don’t know why this is as big of an issue as it is.”

Fuhr said the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs has issues with SB 5066 regarding language, as some terminologies in the bill are subjective from person to person.

Use-of-force data collection

SB 5259, which would require law enforcement agencies to submit data on the use of force, passed the House Public Safety Committee on Tuesday. The Senate passed the bill March 1 in a 46-2 vote. The House had not voted on its final passage as of Tuesday.

Under SB 5259, the state Office of the Attorney General must establish an advisory group to make recommendations for developing a statewide program on collecting use-of-force data. The office would also appoint a public or private university to manage the program.

Law enforcement agencies would have to report “all instances of the use of force” no later than three months after the use of force data program is established, according to the bill’s text.

Fuhr said SB 5259 will be a “logistical and financial burden” on every law enforcement agency in the state. The Legislature should not create an unfunded mandate because some agencies do not have enough funds to do so, he said.

“If they’re going to force agencies to do this, then they’re going to have to compensate,” Fuhr said.

Adkinson said law enforcement agencies do not have an issue with collecting data because the state currently does not have a public database for that type of information. The hope is SB 5259 would not bring additional burdens to agencies, he said.

Siebert said his department already collects use-of-force data, among other things. He does not have an issue with SB 5259 because it is “not that bad,” he said.

SB 5259’s companion, HB 1092, did not make it past the House as of Feb. 9.

Investigation on officer conduct

HB 1267, which is about launching an investigation team under the governor’s office to examine police use-of-force incidents, was referred to the Senate Ways and Means Committee on Friday. The bill passed the House on March 3 in a 57-39 vote. The Senate had yet to vote on its final passage as of Tuesday.

The Office of Independent Investigations would be established under HB 1267 to perform “fair and competent investigations of police use of force incidents,” according to the bill’s text.

Any deadly force incident occurring after July 1, 2022, would be under the OII’s jurisdiction, according to the bill’s text. Qualifications and training would be provided for the investigators.

Fuhr said Initiative 940, a 2019 measure regarding police reform, already provided law enforcement agencies an investigation team similar to what HB 1267 is proposing.

Both Adkinson and Fuhr shared concerns about having civilians in the OII who may be unable to investigate incidents properly.

“I think that if the state pushes this (bill), we’re going to get some very bad investigations coming out of this,” Fuhr said.

Siebert said HB 1267 may create “unknowns” regarding which cases belong in the state’s jurisdiction.

“If we have an officer-involved shooting, do we have to hold the scene until the team from Olympia or wherever they’re at gets here?” Siebert said. “Who’s going to collect the evidence?”

Officer oversight, accountability

SB 5051, which is about having more oversight and accountability among police and corrections officers, passed the House Public Safety Committee on Thursday. The Senate passed the bill Feb. 25 in a 26-19 vote. The House had yet to vote on its final passage as of Tuesday.

Changes would be made to the priorities and composition of the Criminal Justice Training Commission under SB 5051. Background investigation requirements for those looking to become police, reserve or corrections officers would also be modified.

Fuhr said one of the issues he has with SB 5051 is it would place more civilians on the CJTC board.

“How do people that aren’t in the profession know what people in the profession should be doing?” Fuhr said. “That, to me, is very problematic.”

Another portion of SB 5051 that is problematic for Fuhr is enabling any member of the public to file a complaint against an officer to the CJTC. This could lead to thousands of complaints CJTC would have to go through, which is unnecessary, he said.

“The complaint system will create a direct mechanism for individuals to harass law enforcement officers with no basis or any respect to the rights of law enforcement officers,” Fuhr said.

SB 5051 would also adjust the certification and decertification process for peace and corrections officers, according to the bill’s text.

“If we have bad officers, we should be decertifying them,” Fuhr said, “but we’ve got to make sure that we do it correctly, and not haphazardly.”

“If we have bad cops, we need to get rid of them,” Siebert said. “Nobody wants a bad cop, especially another cop.”

SB 5051’s companion, HB 1082, did not make it past the House as of Jan. 15.

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Casey McCarthy/Columbia Basin Herald

Quincy police officer Abraham Guzman stands outside the Quincy Police Department at the corner of First Avenue Southwest and C Street Southwest in Quincy on Tuesday afternoon.

photo

Casey McCarthy/Columbia Basin Herald

Quincy police officer Abraham Guzman stands outside the Quincy Police Department at the corner of First Avenue Southwest and C Street Southwest in Quincy on Tuesday afternoon.