New policing laws weigh on local officers

·5 min read

Jul. 15—Hoquiam Police Department Chief Jeff Myers had a front-row seat to the development and ultimate passage of hundreds of pages of police reform legislation during the Washington Legislature's 2021 session. And now he's getting an intimate view of that legislation's impact on his officers.

In a review of the session and a look at the impact of legislation on local policing this week, Myers said, "I was very lucky to be a party at the table with the Association of Washington Cities, myself and Chief (Brian) Smith of Port Angeles," he said. "And at times, we were the only ones at that table."

Myers and Smith provided a voice for law enforcement as the legislation, which was spurred by examples of police-related violence splashed on social media and national television news sources, was discussed in the House and Senate.

Myers said many aspects of police work will be changed or restricted by the new laws, a lot of which take effect on July 25.

"Many of the bills may have some unintended consequences, which may negatively impact public safety," he said. "I think the Legislature is aware of how this may play out, and what fixes may be coming in the future."

The impact of the glut of new laws on law enforcement personnel is already showing up.

"With so many changes coming so fast and drastic, our police officers and police services officers (corrections officers working in the jail) are feeling challenged, anxious and somewhat lost," said Myers. "I'm seeing a heightened level of anxiety in our staff that I have not seen before."

Myers said the uncertainty has officers you'd normally see patrolling the streets spending more time in the office. That's not unique to Hoquiam, it's the case across the state.

"It appears that some of the basic traditional police duties that we've used in the past to prevent crime may be ended or curtailed," said Myers, one of them being the Terry stop.

That tactic allows an officer who has a reasonable suspicion that a crime is occurring or about to occur to investigate that crime, contact the person and detain them for a brief period of time to determine whether the officer believes that a crime is happening.

"We can still conduct a Terry stop, but if the person doesn't want to cooperate or stay, under the new state law, unless we have probable cause or they are committing a crime, we cannot detain that person," said Myers.

The inability to detain a person in a situation where probable cause is difficult to immediately determine is problematic, for example, in domestic violence situations.

"We know two parties are upset, people have been yelling, we don't know who's doing what, so we kind of need the time and space to figure out who's involved," said Myers. "So right now, we don't have probable cause that a crime occurred, that's what we're trying to figure out. And so if one of the parties says, that's it, I'm out of here, you can't use physical force (to keep the subject on the scene), and in our department physical force is defined as anything beyond compliant handcuffing."

If the officer has to so much as grab or pull the subject, in Hoquiam's case, that's considered the documented use of force — other agencies have different levels of reportable physical force, including some that set the bar at hospitalization of a subject.

Since there is no clear definition or guideline provided with the state law dealing with physical force, "This will ultimately need to be interpreted by a court, and nobody really wants to be the test case," said Myers.

Hoquiam police officers have legal representation through the Fraternal Order of Police. Normally, they only seek out that representation after an officer-involved incident with use of force or deadly force.

"But for the first time, I've had officers who are ready to reach out for legal defense on just routine matters, and they are afraid of the liability. So there's fear of discipline, there's fear of decertification, fear of a lawsuit. And then of course there's also the concern about criminal prosecution," said Myers.

"For us, as an agency with the foundation of community policing, some of the restrictions on our duties and interactions feel like the officers will not be able to provide the same level of service we have in the past. And we have this fear we are going to fail."

Officers are being trained on the new laws, but often without clear guidance from the state, which adds to the uncertainty.

"It's been hard to give officers a definite place to stand because nobody's really sure," said Myers. "We're kind of working through this as we go."

It's becoming more of a challenge to find qualified police officers, at a time when the ability of a single police officer is so limited that having multiple officers arrive at a scene would allow for a situation to be handled merely by their presence in force, rather than having to rely on more hands-on techniques.

The national perception of police officers and the uncertainty arising from the new state laws is making a career in law enforcement a much tougher sell.

"It's going to be a challenge. Would I recommend this job to someone in the future? I'd have to think about that," said Myers. "My son is actually in the profession, but I do worry for him, and others."

Some agencies have just stopped responding to some types of calls that may include a mentally disturbed subject, because the new laws appear to show that legislators do not want police involved in those situations, rather mental health specialists. Hoquiam will not be among them.

"We will continue to respond to calls for service," said Myers. "Once we're there, we'll assess the situation and help problem-solve for a solution. Nothing in the police reform bills required the police not to respond."

As for the future of policing in Hoquiam?

"We roll into situations where people sometimes are at their worst, and we're trying to do our best to make that somehow turn in the right direction," said Myers. "I think our officers are up to the challenge."

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