The state’s new policing laws that went into effect Sunday — though, in intention, a step in the right direction — lack the clarity needed to be as effective as Gov. Jay Inslee says they will be.
Public trust is at an all-time low, and we pick now of all times to shakily launch what The Associated Press calls “a massive experiment in police reform and accountability”?
It would be one thing if the new bills were written with precision and clarity. But throughout the process and the state, they have only broadened in application and caused more confusion — angst and anger, too — than understanding.
Even the sponsor of the bills on police tactics and use of force, Rep. Jesse Johnson, D-Federal Way, admits that some clarification is going to be needed, though he added that complex legislation almost always does. One bill’s tighter restrictions on military grade arms, for instance, accidentally prohibits the use of some less lethal impact weapons, reports The AP. To this, Johnson said “the context makes clear the intent was to embrace, not ban, less-lethal weapons.”
A well-written law should make intent clear and not leave readers to interpret from context, which can be easily misjudged.
Speaking of problems with interpretation, here’s another hiccup: Physical force is not defined in the new law, yet its use is heavily restricted.
So what exactly does this apply to? Don’t worry. Washington’s attorney general will have an answer by July of next year. In the meantime, “agencies have been consulting with lawyers to determine what the new law means,” said The AP.
C’mon, legislators. Defining terms? That’s nuts and bolts.
If these laws are to increase the protection of both the people and police officers, some distinct lines need to be drawn.
Our Walla Walla County police forces have already started to set some boundaries: “The recent police reform legislation … places our agencies and personnel in a difficult position. [We] want to continue providing any and all services our community requests, but at the same time must reduce our response to certain calls for service in order to comply with the law,” wrote Walla Walla County Sheriff Mark Crider, Walla Walla Police Chief Scott Bieber and College Place Police Chief Troy Tomaras in a signed letter released July 22.
According to the U-B’s Jedidiah Maynes, “They said their departments can no longer respond, in most cases, to calls for a check on the welfare of a person, mental health-related concerns, civil disputes and to reports of a suspicious person.” Barring certain circumstances, these calls will be left to other types of crisis responders: firefighters, emergency services or for local mental health crises, Comprehensive Mental Health’s crisis response team.
As we’ve said before, diversifying who answers community calls for help is wise. For example, in many cases, a mental health expert is much better equipped to handle a call reporting a suicidal person. But when it comes to these recent policing bills, much clearer direction is needed before we call victory on behalf of reform.
Frankly, the present vague wording of the bills helps no one. Our people and our officers deserve better than this.