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WA police may regain authority to use force to stop people fleeing crime scenes

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Lawmakers in Washington State are working on some changes to last year’s sweeping police reform laws. There’s broad support for bills to clarify the use of less-lethal ammunition and the role of police in crisis calls.

But some thornier issues remain. One is whether the state’s new laws are allowing suspects to flee crime scenes, and how police should be allowed to respond.

One of Washington state’s new laws, HB 1310, forbids police officers from using force to detain someone unless they have enough evidence to arrest them. Before last year’s reforms, police could use force, including handcuffs, to detain someone briefly while they sought out more evidence.

Law enforcement officials say this new standard is unique nationwide, and prevents them from sorting out a crime scene before people scatter.

RELATED: WA lawmakers outline 2 quick fixes to new policing laws

Carol Cummings is the former police chief for the city of Bothell. She said that under the new law, “I could ask that person to stay and say, ‘hey, can I speak with you?’”

“But if that person says 'no' or keeps running, I have to let them go. The opportunity to be able to freeze a scene and conduct an investigation is gone.”

For example, an officer recently told Cummings that he saw two people with catalytic converters. The officer had reasonable suspicion that the items were stolen. He told the people to stay put while he tried to find the victims of the theft to provide more evidence.

“Before the officer could do that, they ran and left, and he had to let them go,” Cummings said.

Rep. Roger Goodman chairs the House Public Safety Committee. He shepherded last year’s law that restricted the use of force by police in general. But now he supports giving police more power in these situations.

“The problem is many individuals who are stopped, they just walk away or run away, they don’t comply. And police at this point are not free to put hands on or physically interact with them to prevent them from fleeing,” he said.

Goodman is sponsoring HB 2037, which would allow police to use physical force if people flee from these brief investigative detentions.

Steve Strachan is executive director for the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs. He supports the change, and emphasizes that the state’s new restrictions on use of force would remain in place. Police are now required to do everything possible to de-escalate, and to preserve and protect human life.

“I think no matter what happens in the Legislature this year, the environment is not going to be the same as it was before," he said. “This is not a rollback. This is about finding balance.”

At Tuesday's committee hearing, Renton Mayor Armondo Pavone told the committee he supported many of the state's new police reform laws, but this aspect went too far.

“My fear is that in some cases we’ve tipped the balance the wrong way and unfairly hamstrung our officers, replacing certainty with confusion and helpful action with hesitation," he said.

caption: Renton mayor Armando Pavone testified in favor of allowing police to use force to detain people during investigations. He said he supported recent police reforms but "my fear is that in some cases we’ve tipped the balance the wrong way."
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Renton mayor Armando Pavone testified in favor of allowing police to use force to detain people during investigations. He said he supported recent police reforms but "my fear is that in some cases we’ve tipped the balance the wrong way."
Courtesy of TVW

But advocates who pushed for last year’s police reform laws don’t want them watered down.

Leslie Cushman is with the Washington Coalition for Police Accountability. “All the tools now an officer needs are present now under current law. We don’t need to do a darn thing to last year’s reforms,” she said at a recent press conference.

Defenders of the existing law say people might run from police out of fear, not guilt, and racial bias could play a role in their detention. Angelina Smalls is the sister of Bennie Branch, who was killed by Tacoma police in 2019. She spoke against the new bill at the legislature this week.

“Because Bennie fled, under HB 2037, police would have authority to use force to stop him,” she said. “I think House Bill 2037 is an invitation for abuse by police officers. Legislators should be protecting communities from needless violence, not creating more opportunities for police to harm people.”

DeRay McKesson, co-founder of the national police reform group “Campaign Zero, “ also spoke against the bill. He said physical force still turns into deadly force too easily, and police can track down the person when they have more evidence.

“Somebody leaving the scene at that moment does not mean that the police won’t find them again, can’t find them again, doesn’t have information to find them again," he said.

Democrats who helped pass the police reform laws say they’ve been traveling the state, hearing from law enforcement, victims of crime and affected families.

Rep. Jesse Johnson, who sponsored HB 1310, said he believes police do need to be able to stop people who flee the scene.

“I had to think long and hard about it because we hear it all the time where someone is slammed against a police car because they weren’t complying or resisting arrest or something like that,” Johnson said. “But this isn’t that; it’s literally just saying that police can have someone in police custody and have the ability to continue the investigation without the person just leaving.”

The bill explicitly allows police “to use physical force to prevent persons from fleeing lawful temporary investigative detentions,” noting that the force must be necessary and reasonable. The House Public Safety Committee could vote on the measure next week.

The committee is also considering proposals to broaden the use of vehicle pursuits by law enforcement, which were heavily restricted last year. Goodman said he doesn’t want to encourage more pursuits because they’re so dangerous. But he said there could be some narrow circumstances when a chase is warranted.

“So we may be looking at some adjustments particularly when a serious offense has taken place, where there’s been grievous bodily injury or death – not low-level offenses,” he said.

But added he’s not sure if the Legislature will act on that issue this year.

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