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House Public Safety Committee discusses use of force bills

by TIMOTHY FAIRBANKS-CLOUSER, Herald Legislative Writer
| January 12, 2022 1:03 AM

Testimonial debate over the proper use of force rattled legislators again as House Bills 1735 and 1726 reached the Washington State House Public Safety Committee Tuesday morning.

This year’s legislation could fix holes in HB 1064 and HB 1310, which Gov. Jay Inslee signed into law last year. The bills limited a peace officer’s authority to use force to circumstances where probable cause was established rather than reasonable suspicion.

“This addresses all of our concerns, I think, regarding non-criminal authority,” said Brian Smith, Port Angeles’ chief of police. “We felt we couldn’t do what we had previously been doing even though we had the authority.”

House Bills 1735 and 1726 return the authority of law enforcement to use physical force to take a person into custody or conduct investigatory detention, committee counsel Kelly Leonard said. HB 1735 also permits officers to use force when assisting in situations that involve involuntary treatment or evaluation.

A provision included in HB 1735 allows peace officers to use force when taking a minor into protective custody or executing or enforcing a court order.

The bill more clearly defines de-escalation tactics and when to use them and less-lethal alternatives before physical or deadly force. An emergency clause states the bill would take effect immediately if passed, Leonard said.

House Bills 1735 and 1726 garnered mixed testimonies from people concerned the wording of the bills is too limiting and probable cause should remain the standard, not reasonable suspicion.

Some family members testified after losing loved ones because of officer-involved incidents. They argued Washingtonians are safer with legislation respecting probable cause as the standard for using force.

“Do you believe the police see me as a church deacon, a Little League coach or a union steward?” said Fred Thomas, of the Washington Coalition for Police Accountability. “No, but many of them suspect I’m a drug-dealing ex-con when they approach me.”

Even though Thomas has never been in trouble with the law, he said the color of his skin often leaves officers with “suspicions,” which results in them cuffing and detaining him. He claimed an experience with law enforcement left his son dead after officers relied on their suspicions instead of facts.

Other people disagreed with supporters of last year’s legislation as situations unfolded where officers refused to respond to mental health crises due to lack of sufficient cause.

House Bill 1735 has a provision which states the bill would not limit or restrict an officer’s authority or responsibility to perform life-saving measures or protect health and safety, Leonard said.

Officers need to know what excessive force is to reach a continuity in training around the state, said James McMahan, the Washington Association of Sheriffs & Police Chiefs policy director. Vehicular assault, residential burglary, bomb threats, and hate crimes are all forms of criminal conduct, which are not included in the language of the bills. McMahan suggested too many margins for error are left, which legislators will have to deal with in the future, if not now.

The House Public Safety Committee also heard House Bill 1719, concerning the sale and use of military equipment by law enforcement agencies. The bill states what law enforcement should and should not use to launch and deploy less-lethal rounds, said Rep. Dan Bronoske, D-Lakewood.

House Bill 1719 removes the prohibition of weapons and ammunition of .50-caliber and greater of tools other than rifles. Leonard said this allows law enforcement agencies to use shotguns and other weapons of .50-caliber or greater to fire less-lethal rounds.

This bill also includes an emergency clause rendering the legislation effective immediately if it becomes law.

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