Local police departments sorting out unknowns in new accountability laws

Major changes are coming at the end of this month for police in Edmonds, Lynnwood and Mountlake Terrace. The Washington State Legislature has outlawed chokeholds and neck restraints; limited how and when officers can chase suspects; how much force they can use to subdue people; prohibits “no-knock’”warrants and severely limits the use of tear gas. The laws also create mandatory statewide standards to “decertify” or fire officers. My Edmonds News’ Bob Throndsen examines what the changes mean for officers — and you.

A Lynnwood police officer came face to face with a distraught man who had tied a machete to his wrist and was daring officers to shoot him. Lynnwood Police Chief Jim Nelson said the man wanted “officers to help him commit suicide by shooting him.”

That did not happen.

An officer instead fired what police call a “foam launcher,” hitting the man with hard plastic foam balls that knocked him to the ground, enabling officers to subdue him. But, the chief said, under one of the new state laws that take effect on July 25, Lynnwood police will no longer use that less lethal “foam launcher.”

Foam launcher (Photo courtesy Los Angeles Police Department)

That seems to fly in the face of efforts to train police to use less lethal force and to de-escalate what can be ‘”life or death” decisions. Lynnwood police are removing the officers’ foam launchers because a new police tactics measure outlaws the use of military equipment, which also includes “firearms and ammunition of .50 caliber or greater.” Lynnwood’s foam launchers –and those many other departments use  — fire a .50-caliber shell, even though it is not a bullet.

The foam launchers have sparked nationwide controversy over their safety. Other departments (not Lynnwood) have settled lawsuits after protestors or bystanders were seriously injured by those “less lethal” weapons.

The “no military equipment” rule and the complete package of new police accountability laws in Washington means substantial changes for how police in our three communities do their job.

The unknown future

All three police departments tell us they have been training officers in the new laws and that they believe they are ready. However, all three agree the changes:

  • “May create some uncertainty for officers, some vagueness” – Edmonds Assistant Acting Chief Josh McClure.
  • That “nobody really knows what’s going to happen” – Mountlake Terrace Chief Pete Caw
  • That “there is always the unknown; what exactly does this mean” – Lynnwood Chief Jim Nelson.

It is also “unknown” territory for all of us. The new Washington laws come in the wake of the nationwide call for police reform. Their goal: to help curb potential misuse of force, to reduce injury and death, to create statewide standards to hold officers accountable and to address issues of social justice.

The new laws include:

  • No chokeholds, extreme limits on car pursuits and on the use of tear gas
  • An officer who witnesses excessive force must intervene and report it
  • No use of deadly force unless imminent threat of serious injury or death
  • No use of any force unless all de-escalation techniques have been exhausted
  • Statewide standards to ‘de-certify’ or terminate police and corrections officers

Read more about this legislation  in our earlier article here.

Edmonds Acting Assistant Chief Josh McClure

The biggest issue for police is interpreting the language in the new laws. Acting Assistant Edmonds Police Chief Josh McClure put it this way: “If an officer has reasonable suspicion to stop someone, based on the situation, they have the legal authority to stop and detain them. If the suspect takes off running, that’s a crime – obstruction – and, until now we could chase and take them into custody.”

Under the new laws, said McClure, “now, it is unclear whether that is reasonable for an officer to do. Does that chase and arrest meet the threshold of pursuing (under the new laws); it’s a direction that conflicts with existing state law.”

Lynnwood Police Chief Jim Nelson

Lynnwood Police Chief Jim Nelson wonders “what exactly is the interpretation? We are still engaged with legislators about any unintended consequences, and it will take a while to sort that out.”

Mountlake Terrace Police Chief Pete Caw

“Nobody really knows what’s going to happen”, added Mountlake Terrace Chief Pete Caw; “probable cause and reasonable suspicion. We need to dig down and see what it is (in the new laws); we need the legislature to further define the words.”

“The words” become critical in potential life-and-death situations, in which officers may have only seconds to react. McClure says one new law bans any form of neck restraint or chokehold, but “another law says if you are in a fight for your life, you can use any means necessary.” That, he added, “appears to escalate rather than de-escalate (a situation); it would seem they want you to use a gun rather than a chokehold.”

The new law on ‘decertification’ of officers is also a big unknown. Now, for the first time in this state, police officers can lose their certification if they are found to have used excessive force. Without that certification, they cannot serve as officers. Lynnwood’s Jim Nelson said there is “some apprehension” as officers work to comply with that law. “What are the rules of engagement?” asked Nelson. “We need to make sure they understand, and make sure they can apply them in chaotic, fast-moving situations; that they have the right training and right mindset.”

New laws –  new training

In all three cities, training is in progress. Chief Nelson said his department just completed its policy review and more sessions are planned. Lynnwood’s priority, Nelson added, was to understand the complexities and to emphasize “that each word matters.”

All three departments have met with their city attorneys and have consulted with the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs (WASPC), the main lobbying agency for law enforcement, to help the cities plan new policy. Every Thursday, said Mountlake Terrace’s Chief Caw, their policy management system meets to refine plans and training.

Edmonds’ McClure says a number of other Snohomish County departments have brainstormed with each other to share what has happened in their communities, “to try to put officers in the best situation to make the best decision we can within the new laws.”

Lynnwood has, for several years, given officers what they call “enhanced” defensive tactics training. The department will implement more changes in September, which means a training session every month for every officer to refresh their defensive tactics.

More training means budgeting more money, often a challenge for small cities. Though lawmakers passed the bills, they left some of them unfunded; there is no additional money in the state budget to help pay for implementing the changes.

Results of new police reforms

How do we know that the new laws will bring the changes that lawmakers hoped for?

Chief Nelson said he wants residents to know that his officers want to meet their community’s expectations. But he warned that putting new tactics in place is “not done in a laboratory and it isn’t precise.”

In Edmonds, Assistant Chief McClure says if “you need us, call us – 24/7.” But he added, “It might mean that we don’t go to every single 9-1-1 call; that we might keep a distance in mental health calls.”

“We would ask,” McClure continued, “that you be understanding that our approach and tactics might be different than what you’ve seen in the past.”

Mountlake Terrace’s Chief Caw warned that the bottom line in implementing the new laws “is that I don’t want somebody to get hurt — us or the public — as we react.”

— By Bob Throndsen

 

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