SEATTLE—Democrats in Washington state rode the wave of anti-police sentiment after the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis. Their goal was to “reimagine policing,” and it’s exactly what they did.
Consequently, Washington experienced a surge of violent crime. Now Republicans, and even some Democrats, are rushing to fix as much as possible.
With total control of the state Legislature, Democrats used the 2021 legislative session to rush through sweeping “reforms” that dramatically changed policing in the state. These passed bills clamped down on police use of force and detainment, banned departments from deploying large-caliber weapons, and even prohibited most high-speed chases.
Prior to the changes, police officers could use reasonable suspicion as a reason to detain a suspect. But thanks to a bill designated as HB 1310, an officer may use force only when making an arrest.
To make an arrest, though, an officer must have probable cause—a much higher standard than reasonable suspicion. If an officer detains someone or uses force under the reasonable-suspicion standard, thanks to the passage of SB 5051, he or she may lose police certification.
In the real world, this means if an officer sees someone acting suspiciously around an abandoned building in the middle of the night, in a neighborhood that is experiencing a rash of arson, the officer cannot detain that person.
The officer merely may ask the suspect to submit voluntarily to questioning. If the person suddenly flees, the officer may not pursue, because he didn’t witness a crime.
This issue has had the biggest impact on our communities that are overwhelmed by homelessness, where it’s common to see someone experiencing a public episode related to mental health or drugs.
Democrat politicians long have complained that armed police officers should not respond to calls involving citizens in crisis. They’re getting that wish now, and living with the consequences.
‘We Cannot Use Force’
Since law enforcement officers in Washington state are restricted to using force only when making an arrest, unless a crime is committed, officers are not allowed to touch the person in crisis, even if it’s to get him into a patrol car for transport to a mental health evaluation.
Snohomish County Sheriff Adam Fortney, in a recent interview on my Seattle-based talk radio show, said these occurrences are frequent and put other residents at risk.
Fortney recalled dispatching deputies and medics to a family dispute involving an adult in the middle of a mental health crisis. These first responders found the man lying down in the back of a pickup truck.
“We’re talking to him, you know, we’re keeping distance,” Fortney recalled. “We and the medic determined that he needs help … but this is the crux of the issue: Unless that person in crisis is willing to walk on his own accord into the back of the aid unit and go to the hospital and get the help, we cannot use force because of this new legislation.”
The man in this example ended up running away, the sheriff said, and there was nothing authorities could do since he had not committed a crime. But he would end up doing just that.
“We watched him run away,” Fortney said. “He jumps fences. He enters someone else’s home unlawfully after he shed his clothing. And that homeowner had to hold that person in crisis at knifepoint until we were redispatched and had to go deal with, now, the new issue that came up.”
It’s not the only circumstance where law enforcement officers have to stand by helplessly. They’re now put in positions where they are forced to watch suspects flee in vehicles, since legislation known as HB 1054 bans nearly all vehicle pursuits.
The law bars police from pursuing a suspect unless there’s probable cause that he committed a violent offense or sex crime, or a reasonable suspicion that the driver is impaired.
But that’s not all.
Prior to the pursuit, the law says an officer must consider whether a suspect poses “an imminent threat to the safety of others and the safety risks of failing to apprehend,” and a supervisor must give permission for the officer to pursue.
Imagine having to satisfy this law within seconds, at risk of losing police certification if you get it wrong.
It’s why the Chelan County Sheriff’s Office and police in neighboring Douglas County could not pursue a man who was driving a stolen bus. Law enforcement didn’t have probable cause that the man committed a violent crime.
The following evening, police made an arrest. Unfortunately, it came after the suspect left the bus and stole a front-end loader. Police said he crashed the vehicle into the home of his estranged wife.
The incident would have ended differently if cops weren’t stymied by Democrat lawmakers whose understanding of policing extends only to trusting activists who claim officers roam the streets looking to harass or hunt so-called BIPOC (black, indigenous, and people of color).
Law enforcement agencies and the experts that run them were mostly cut off from helping draft the state legislation. That approach recently cost the life of a police dog.
Officers from the Seattle Police Department responded to a panicked call about a man, armed with a machete, who was trying to break into a home. When they arrived, the man was running away, wearing nothing but a bath towel.
Wielding a knife as well as the machete, the man refused to comply with orders to stop as he ran toward oncoming traffic.
The Death of Jedi
Officers called a K-9 unit to assist. A police dog named Jedi was unleashed not long after the man briefly advanced toward a cop and then turned back to the oncoming traffic with no apparent interest in stopping.
The man hacked Jedi multiple times with the machete, then stabbed the dog with the knife. The brutal violence was caught on police body cameras.
Jedi died of his wounds. The police dog’s handler was injured during the melee. Other cops on the scene shot and killed the man.
The dog’s death was needless; the K-9 unit itself was unnecessary.
HB 1054 banned police use of large-caliber firearms and ammunition under the ridiculous notion that police departments were becoming militarized. The legislation didn’t include a carve-out for nonlethal firearms such as 44 mm sponge-tipped rounds. Lawmakers unfamiliar with weapons or policing thought that a large caliber coincides with lethality.
“I say this with 100% certainty, having years of experience in patrol and SWAT, and having worked beside K-9 more times than I can count,” a Seattle police officer told me. “Had responding officers had 40 mm launchers to deploy on that suspect, Jedi would almost certainly be alive today. The suspect might also be alive today, receiving treatment.”
Other officers reached out to convey that same message.
After Democrats passed their legislation last year, law enforcement officials immediately raised red flags—the same ones that had been ignored by the Democrats who pushed through the legislation.
Lawmakers knew they erred and responded with ludicrous advice from the two state representatives who spearheaded the “reform” efforts.
Scrambling to Make Fixes
State Rep. Jesse Johnson, D-Federal Way, argued that his bills were being “misinterpreted.” Although news outlets that are antagonistic to police also made this claim, Johnson acknowledged that his legislation had “unintended consequences.”
Meanwhile, state Rep. Roger Goodman, D-Kirkland, advised police to ignore the ban on large-caliber weapons because “no one caught” that mistake. Goodman promised that “there are not going to be any sanctions” imposed on officers who use nonlethal weapons.
Good luck finding a cop who will trust that legally untenable position. Judges don’t look to interviews given by a lawmaker if pressed on a case.
Officers in law enforcement agencies that have decided to break the law and keep nonlethal tools are choosing not to use them. Take former King County Sheriff Mitzi Johanknecht, for one.
“In my mind, while I was sheriff, the decision that [the law] disqualified the carrying of less-lethal weapons for the Sheriff’s Office … I wasn’t going to take that chance for the members of my organization at that time,” Johanknecht, whose term ended in December, told me.
Now Democrats are hastily trying to fix some of their hastily passed legislation. It’s quite ironic.
They’re attempting to clarify when officers may use force so that they would not be barred from intervening in a crisis fueled by a mental health issue or addiction. They’re also changing the weapons ban so that it applies only to rifles.
But one fix is providing controversial.
Introduced by Goodman, the Democrat from Kirkland, HB 1726 would allow law enforcement officers to revert to the reasonable-suspicion standard when using force in a criminal investigation. It would allow officers to use force “to effect a temporary investigatory detention when there is reasonable suspicion that the person has committed or is committing a violent offense, a sex offense, an assault, or domestic violence.”
The American Civil Liberties Union of Washington opposes Goodman’s bill because it would expand the use of force.
Washington state Republicans offered their own solutions in a package of 22 House bills and 21 Senate bills.
But with no power, GOP lawmakers’ bills are likely dead on arrival, making it unlikely that state residents will see meaningful changes to the partial ban on vehicle pursuits or the all-out ban on vascular neck restraints, also passed last year.
Crime already has been on the rise in Washington’s most densely populated cities and counties.
King County, home to Seattle, exceeded 2020’s violent crime rate by October 2021. Pierce County also saw a violent 2021, thanks in part to a surge in homicides in Tacoma. And the Spokane area was the scene of more homicide investigations than at any other point in its history.
What’s driving the crime surge? A light-on-crime approach favored by partisans such as top King County prosecutor Dan Satterberg. In lieu of jail time, the prosecuting attorney’s office pushes scores of felons into “restorative justice” programs run by police and prison abolitionists.
It’s no wonder the county has experienced a rise in crime as Satterberg implemented this approach.
Making matters worse, a considerable staffing crisis continues to plague law enforcement agencies. Astonishingly, the Seattle Police Department is operating without 350 officers since 2020, leaving a total of 880 deployable officers to police the city.
In Tacoma, it’s nearly as bad. The department confirmed it lost 50 officers in 2021, leaving the city with 141 officers assigned to patrol (not including traffic officers or homeless outreach teams), and a total of 315 commissioned officers. The Tacoma force is budgeted for 365.
A Worsening Crisis
And although some legislative fixes may occur, it doesn’t stop Washington’s Democrat-run cities from implementing their own policies to reimagine policing.
Seattle voters also pushed a referendum over the finish line to lose their right to elect the King County sheriff.
Now, King County Executive Dow Constantine, who is far left, appoints the sheriff. Constantine, who pressed Johanknecht to retire last year over a deputy’s fatal shooting of a 20-year-old man, doesn’t believe in incarceration for felonious youths who drive much of the crime in the South Sound cities.
So where does policing in Washington stand? Severely damaged. And law-abiding citizens suffer the most.
Radical laws damaged policing, potentially beyond repair, and emboldened criminals. It will take a Herculean effort to make criminals retreat, while crimes fueled by the homeless or the addicted show no signs of slowing down.
And with so few police recruits entering a profession that has been so demonized by leftist activists and politicians, it seems likely that this crisis will worsen before it gets better. What will be left of the Evergreen State at that point?
The Daily Signal publishes a variety of perspectives. Nothing written here is to be construed as representing the views of The Heritage Foundation.
Have an opinion about this article? To sound off, please email [email protected] and we’ll consider publishing your edited remarks in our regular “We Hear You” feature. Remember to include the url or headline of the article plus your name and town and/or state.