Ahead of the start of the 2022 Legislative session Monday, House Democrats announced a pair of bills intended to clear up confusion around police accountability laws passed last year.
House Bill 1735 is sponsored by state Reps. Jesse Johnson, D-Federal Way, and Alicia Rule, D-Blaine. The bill clarifies that officers can use force, subject to the newly established reasonable care standard, in behavioral health circumstances, for involuntary treatment commitments, in instances of child welfare, and other related circumstances.
"Ultimately, these two bills do exactly what we committed to doing a while ago. There were several claims by law enforcement that the policies we enacted last year prohibited them from actions that they thought were in the best interest of public safety. In most cases, that was not true," said state Rep. Monica Stonier, D-Vancouver, who represents the 49th District and is a co-sponsor of the new legislation.
Republican lawmakers and law enforcement officials have been critical of the new laws since they went into effect in July, saying officers can no longer respond to certain crimes, such as a mental health crisis or domestic violence dispute; if a crime that has not been committed yet; or cannot arrest a suspect unless the officer witnesses the crime.
"I have been extremely concerned about reports of designated crisis responders either not being able to respond to a mental health crisis or responding without police assistance," Rule said. "While in many cases an unarmed response is preferable to a police response, our designated crisis responders are often entering volatile situations and depend on law enforcement for their safety."
In those cases where the new laws are unclear, Stonier said law enforcement are the experts, and Democrats took their guidance when crafting the new legislation.
"These two bills are intended to clarify the original intent of the bills, and that is to ensure peace officers can respond when there is reasonable suspicion that a crime has been committed and that de-escalation is important as a first step but does not necessarily mean that law enforcement cannot respond," Stonier said.
"Since the implementation of our police accountability package, Rep. Roger Goodman, chair of the public safety committee, and I have met with law enforcement leaders as well as rank-and-file officers from across the state to learn how these laws are being implemented and to ensure that law enforcement has the clarity necessary to do their jobs," Johnson said. "We have also met extensively with designated crisis responders, mental and behavioral health professionals, firefighters, EMTs, and cities to see how their work has been impacted."
House Bill 1719, sponsored by state Rep. Dan Bronoske, D-Lakewood, will address the ban on firearms over .50 caliber, which Democrats said some law enforcement interpreted as inadvertently banning the use of less-lethal weapons and beanbag rounds for shotguns. The bill clarifies that the prohibition only applies to rifles and not shotguns or less-lethal munitions launchers.
"The Legislature never intended to ban less-lethal alternatives to deadly force," Bronoske said in the release. "This bill will eliminate any ambiguity in the statute and ensure that our law enforcement professionals have all of the tools necessary to do their job."
Stonier said it's not just law enforcement that has been confused about interpreting the police reforms bills; she said the public, too, has been misinformed.
"What really contributed to that confusion, which I think is a disservice to the public, is that we had many county sheriffs who are in elected positions reinforce this misinformation. That, of course, is going to bring alarm to the public. We've worked really hard to respond to that," Stonier said.
Republicans announced their "Safe Washington" package of bills last week targeting the police reform bills. With 22 House bills and 21 Senate bills, the package includes bills to repeal the new laws and others with major overhauls. One bill sponsored by state Sen. Lynda Wilson, R-Vancouver, would increase the penalties for theft of a firearm, and another bill would allow victims of domestic violence to be present at all sentencing hearings. Wilson is also sponsoring a bill to amend the state constitution to allow courts to withhold bail in felony domestic violence cases.
The Democrats' bill will be heard in the House Public Safety Committee at 8 a.m. today. The hearing can be viewed on TVW.org.