Wash. police leaders voice concern as reform laws go into effect

The laws limit police response to mental crisis calls and create a new use-of-force standard that's "nearly impossible to meet," officials said

By Charles H. Featherstone
Columbia Basin Herald, Moses Lake, Wash.

SOAP LAKE, Wash. — Soap Lake Police Chief Ryan Cox believes the host of laws passed this spring by the Washington Legislature governing how police operate are going to make life in this small community more difficult.

He cites health and welfare checks as examples. Someone calls the Soap Lake Police saying they can't get in contact with a parent, or older sibling, or sick relative, and would the SLPD check on that person, just to make sure they're OK.

"We've done a lot of health and welfare checks," Cox explained. "Every few weeks, we'd get a call. And now we can't do that anymore."


Last spring, the Washington state legislature passed, and Gov. Jay Inslee signed into law, seven bills that governed how officers use force, how use-of-force incidents are reported, what weapons the police may continue to use, and how the state will review and investigate any use of force.

However, among the biggest changes made raise the standard for the use of force — including the ability to detain and question people — from "reasonable suspicion" to "probable cause."

"This is a very high standard and nearly impossible to meet," Grant County Sheriff Tom Jones wrote in an open letter to county residents.

Jones also wrote officers can only use force when probable cause exists to make an arrest, to prevent someone who is already in custody from escaping, and to "protect against imminent threat of bodily injury to a person."

"I believe these laws will have negative and long-lasting consequences for the residents of our great county," Jones wrote. "As our office adjusts to the new ways of providing police services, know that our deputies will still be accountable to the citizens we serve."

All of the laws come into effect Sunday.

Cox, who oversees the six-member Soap Lake Police Department (including himself) which patrols the town of about 1,600 people, said because of the new laws, there are a number of other "non-crime events" the SLPD will no longer respond to, including suspicious person calls, runaway teenagers, vehicular pursuit of suspects and mental health crises.

Among the things Cox said he will also change is how his department responds to potential suicides, noting police can no longer intervene to protect someone intent on harming themselves because the law does not specifically list "imminent danger to self" when justifying the use of force.

"It says imminent danger to a person, and nothing about self," Cox said. "We have to read the letter of the law, and not interpret it."

For Cox, it means the basic job of making sure everyone in the community is safe will be compromised.

"The community caretaking function, we can't do that anymore," he said. "I am frustrated. I have a group of young staff with high energy who want to make a difference in our community, and now our hands are tied."

According to Quincy Police Capt. Ryan Green, the new "probable cause" standard means police aren't going to be able to respond to a bank robbery by simply detaining anyone fleeing the scene. They now have to establish what happened, collect evidence and get specific descriptions before being able to successfully search for and detain anyone.

"It changes the way law enforcement has to respond," Green said. "We're still going to do our job, but it will look a little different."

Green said it doesn't mean police cannot speak to people. It does mean, however, they cannot detain anyone while they investigate, Green said. So, the Quincy police are going to "slow down" and spend more time collecting information before responding or handing a call off to the proper agency, such as the county's mental health provider, Grant Integrated Services (GIS).

According to Ephrata Police Chief Kurt Adkinson, who oversees a department of 16 officers including himself, the main first responders to mental health crisis calls will now be firefighters, paramedics and emergency counselors, and not police officers.

"We will not be the primary on those sorts of calls," Adkinson said.

Green said the Quincy police — 22 sworn officers including Green and Chief Kieth Siebert — are working closely with Grant County Fire District 3 and American Medical Response ambulance service to make sure those first responders know the police will be available if needed.

"If there's no criminal activity, we're not supposed to be there," Green said. "But we will protect our partners."

Cox said, however, that pulling the more than two dozen police officers trained to deal with mental health crises and leaving it to GIS' one on-call responder will not be an improvement and not make anyone safer.

"We have 30 mental health responders in Grant County, trained law enforcement officers who can act in a crisis," Cox said. "After July 25, we have only one on-call specialist for 105,000 people. How is that supposed to make things better?"

The new laws also ban police from using "military gear" and weapons greater than .50 caliber — including shotguns that fire non-lethal rounds like beanbags. According to Cox, even the writers of the law said they did not intend to remove non-lethal weapons from use, but wrote the law in such a way so that there is no choice.

"They are taking more less-lethal options away from us and giving us fewer choices," Cox said. "It doesn't make sense."

"Less lethal could be useful," Adkins said. "We're trying to get the attorney general to issue an opinion, but that doesn't change the letter of the law, and the only opinion that matters will come from a judge."

Until then, Cox, Adkins and Green said their departments have locked their shotguns away in hopes the law will eventually be changed. However, if it is not, they have until December 2022 to get rid of them under the new legislation.

"We're hoping for some resolution," Adkins said. "I'm not sure what my police force is going to look like."

And echoing sentiments spoken by Cox, Jones and Green, Adkinson added the Ephrata police will continue to respond to calls for help.

"But it will look different. And we may decide that what's going on here is outside our legal authority," he said. "And there is a chance an officer will walk away without having done anything."

(c)2021 the Columbia Basin Herald, Wash.

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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