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Inslee signs law returning some powers to Washington police; opponents call it a rollback

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Last May, Washington Governor Jay Inslee signed a series of new police accountability laws. This week, he signed another bill that supporters call a "clarification" of those laws. But opponents call it a "rollback."

HB 2037 authorizes police to use force to prevent someone from fleeing the scene during a brief, investigative detention.

Police said under last year’s HB 1310, they lacked the ability to freeze chaotic crime scenes. Before last year’s reforms, police could use force, including handcuffs, to detain someone briefly while they sought out more evidence. Meanwhile, family members of people killed by police called the latest legislative session a painful one, and said they are disappointed by the revision.

The new law reaffirms officers’ authority to detain people for questioning. But it emphasizes that this authority is not without limits. Officers must use the minimum level of force necessary, show "reasonable care" for individuals, and attempt to de-escalate whenever possible.

Marco Monteblanco is president of the Washington State Fraternal Order of Police. His group supported many of last year’s changes and also supported this update.

“It still provides an avenue for investigations, but also still recognizes the need for some changes within law enforcement. This was not a rollback at all,” he said.

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He said he’s pleased that Reps. Roger Goodman and Jesse Johnson, who shepherded last year’s reforms, were also receptive to law enforcement concerns about some of the consequences.

“I think this strikes a very good balance. There needed to be some clarifications and I look at this as a bill that provided clarification," Monteblanco said.

Enoka Herat is with the ACLU of Washington, which opposed the new law. She said HB 2037 “gives officers more leeway to harm people and makes it harder to hold officers accountable.”

She called it a return to "business as usual" for policing.

“Thousands of people marched to demand change to that,” she said. “And it is so disheartening to see our Legislature roll that back.”

Herat said with this new law, officers have too much discretion to stop people, which can result in racial profiling and disparities.

“At the end of the day this is about our ability to walk freely on the sidewalk, and drive in our cars without the terrifying and humiliating experience of being pushed or shoved or handcuffed or harmed by law enforcement without any justification,” she said.

Members of the Washington Coalition for Police Accountability opposed HB 2037. But Fred Thomas, whose son Leonard Thomas was killed by a Pierce Metro SWAT team sniper in 2013, said “we’re new to this game,” and law enforcement groups prevailed with legislators this year.

Thomas said he believes the result will be more violent police encounters.

“As soon as they found out these laws were going to be softened, weakened or repealed, they’ve already killed more people in the first three months of 2022 than when they were under those laws in 2021,” he said.

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Police officers said they’re relieved that the bill passed.

In a statement, the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs thanked legislators for “their follow up and necessary adjustments to the 2021 package of reform laws.”

But they said they are disappointed that legislation to authorize more police vehicle pursuits for serious and violent crimes did not pass.

“I have never seen criminals as emboldened as they are now," said WASPC Executive Director Steve Strachan. "Our mayors, law enforcement, and the community asked for help, and the Legislature made the specific decision to continue to allow for brazen contempt for the law.”

“No one wants more pursuits, which are inherently dangerous, but current law has created an atmosphere of flouting the law even on simple traffic stops," he said. "This atmosphere is, and will continue to be, unacceptable and dangerous to public safety. Fleeing in a vehicle should not be a get-out-of-jail-free card.”

The ACLU’s Herat said she’s grateful that police vehicle pursuits were not expanded and that in those situations “reasonable commonsense limits remain in place.”

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