Lewis County Sheriff Speaks Out Against New Police Reform Laws

Lawmaker Counters That Many Agencies Have No Issues With Changes

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The Adna Grange was packed Wednesday evening as Lewis County Sheriff Rob Snaza spoke about the challenges he says his office is having adjusting to the 11 police accountability bills that took effect on July 25.

A 12th law, which requires juveniles to be given access to attorneys when they’re contacted by law enforcement, takes effect Jan. 1, 2022.

Snaza primarily spoke out against House Bills 1310 and 1054, which mitigate excessive use of force and establish requirements for tactics and equipment used by peace officers, respectively.

"I'm telling you this, I'm common sense, I'm a meat and potato guy. This doesn't have the smell test. It smells like BS,” Snaza said. 

Snaza claimed those two bills hinder law enforcement from effectively doing their jobs and encouraged the mostly-unmasked crowd to contact the legislation’s primary sponsors, Rep. Jesse Johnson, D-Federal Way, and Rep. Roger Goodman, D-Kirkland, to express their frustration with the laws.

“His (Johnson’s) main goal was he wants to stop violence on people of color, basically that's what it's all about. So in law enforcement, that's not what we're all about. We're all about fairness,” Snaza said. “We don't decide what ethnicity you are before we make an arrest. We don't decide what gender you are. We don't decide what religion you are. We're there to do our job. Our job is to investigate a crime.”

Wednesday's event, which was intended for law enforcement officers to explain the new reform laws and answer questions from the public, was hosted by Back the Blue Lewis County. The local law enforcement support group formed in August 2020, shortly after the memorial for State Patrol Trooper Justin Schaffer, who was fatally struck by a vehicle while placing spike strips on Interstate 5 in Chehalis during a pursuit of a robbery suspect.

Snaza was the primary speaker, with two Lewis County deputies and Lewis County Fire District 6 Chief Ken Cardinale also in attendance.

The police reform laws passed this legislative session were developed largely as a response to the murder of George Floyd during a Minneapolis police arrest that prompted protests in Washington and all over the country demanding police reform nationwide.

“The demonstrations in the streets last summer were a clear call for social and racial equity and the justice system and we responded to that,” Goodman said in a recent interview with The Chronicle. “Our intent was to continue to improve training and perfect policies and procedures for the 21st century, where police are guardians in the community, not warriors chasing down the bad guy. That’s the old generation thinking. And the other very clear intent was that police need to be treating all communities equitably.”

During Wednesday’s meeting, Snaza relayed several anecdotes of situations where the sheriff’s office’s response has changed due to the new measures. In one anecdote, he detailed a situation where people saw two youths running away from a business with items in their arms and called the police.

"Common sense tells us those boys are up to no good, probably tried to break into my buddy's shop, I'm calling the cops,” said Snaza, saying that the responding deputy would previously have detained the youths and used “persuasive talking” to determine what happened. The reform laws now require law enforcement to have probable cause before detaining someone.

“How will we determine probable cause that they actually broke into that building and that we actually have a victim? That's the challenge,” Snaza said.

Another anecdote related to Snaza’s problem with probable cause detailed a possible domestic violence situation where the alleged perpetrator attempted to leave the scene during questioning.

"I have no recourse to keep that person staying. It used to be 'no, I need you to stay while we investigate this, we need to be sure what's going on. We're just going to detain you until we figure it out.’ ‘Detained’ means you're not under arrest, you're just not free to go at this point. So now we've lost that."

Snaza said officers have had to locate subjects after obtaining probable cause, usually after the subject has left the scene, which takes additional time and resources.

The law in question, HB 1310, allows law enforcement to use physical force when necessary to make an arrest or prevent an escape, or when there is "an imminent threat of bodily injury" to the officer, suspect or someone else; but it directs officers to exhaust all possible deescalation tactics before using force. Some of these tactics include repositioning, calling for backup, calling for additional resources such as mental health workers, or leaving the scene "if there is no threat of imminent harm and no crime has been committed, is being committed, or is about to be committed.”

“If they're not breaking the law, unless we find something, we're really not going to do much,” Snaza said. “We might talk to them. We might stay with them a little bit. We may try to get them some help, but at the end of the day you may see us leaving and then you're going to say 'why is the sheriff's office leaving? That person is obviously in mental health distress.’ Well the new laws, 1310, come out, and say you're not allowed to touch hands unless you're going to put them in protective custody, and even then it's very touchy."

Snaza referred to deescalation techniques as “judo-tactical verbiage,” and said he found them ineffective in the field.

"The people that we deal with on a regular basis, they know what verbal judo means too and they know the game just as much as we do,” he said.

Like some law enforcement agencies in Thurston County, the Lewis County Sheriff’s Office has decided not to accompany fire and medical personnel on mental and behavioral health calls where a clear crime has not been committed out of concern for potential liability should an officer end up using force.

The decision has significantly impacted fire and medical personnel, said Lewis County Fire District 6 Chief Ken Cardinale — specifically on calls where a subject may become violent, such as a mental health call or a drug overdose. For his personnel’s safety, Cardinale said crisis responders respond alongside law enforcement, and while law enforcement will still respond to the call, officers will not go inside with fire and EMT personnel, putting them at risk for physical harm.

“We don't have any training to date, there's no funding for training, or self defense or equipment to protect ourselves or any type of threat identification for our personnel,” said Cardinale. “I cannot put my personnel at risk without any protection, without any training and without any funding for any of that to go in and potentially get hurt.”

Cardinale said his department is also running into problems in cases where involuntary medical treatment is required to save a person’s life.

"We don't have the authority to put somebody into custody and take them to the hospital,” he said. “We would have to request law enforcement to put them under a 72-hour hold as a danger to themselves, a danger to others, at which point we can step in, transport, treat and get them to a hospital. Today, we can't do that.”

Cardinale said his department has an excellent working relationship with the Lewis County Sheriff’s Office and spoke out against the effects of the new police reform laws.

“They have been handcuffed, literally, to prevent them from doing their jobs and in turn, because of this litigation, has handcuffed us and stopped us from doing our jobs,” he said. “It's important the public understands what is being done here by these legislators and how it's impacting. It's not only impacting law enforcement, it's impacting how we deliver service and how we save lives."

Snaza stated his belief that the new reform laws “blame” law enforcement statewide for the behavior of a few bad cops.

“If you're a sheriff or a police chief who does not believe in police reform then you don't deserve to have that position because you should always strive for professionalism,” he said. “Get those bad cops out of here because I don't want them and neither does anybody else. But don't put that blame on us. Put half this energy into helping homelessness, substance use disorder and mental health issues, because that is what's really impacting our communities.”

Snaza also expressed his disdain for Senate Bill 5476, the law that replaced the state’s prior law criminalizing simple drug possession, which was struck down by the State v. Blake supreme court decision in February for criminalizing unknowing drug possession. The replacement law criminalizes possession of a controlled substance as a gross misdemeanor — not a Class C felony like it was under the original law — and prioritizes behavioral health prevention, treatment and related services for individuals using or possessing controlled substances, counterfeit substances and legend drugs.

Snaza claimed the Legislature’s decision to reduce the penalty for criminal drug possession was influenced by high jail populations in the Seattle area, which Snaza claimed wasn’t a problem Lewis County had.

“Why are we pushing what goes on up there down here into our communities? And I tell people this, the reason I tell people this, is we don't want to be like them. Whatever you are, whatever belief system you have, you live in Lewis County for a reason, because it's a great community to raise your family, go to school, and that's what it's all about. But this is what we're doing, we're allowing others from up north to make some decisions.”

Despite the significant changes Snaza said his office has had to take in response to the new police reform laws and the limited ways in which they can respond, Snaza encouraged community members to continue to call the sheriff’s office.

"We're not going to lower our professionalism, we're not going to lower our quality of service, it's just going to be challenging.”

•••

While the Lewis County Sheriff’s Office and other law enforcement entities, including the Thurston County Sheriff’s Office, have stated that they’ve been significantly impacted by the new police reform laws, Goodman said that during his ongoing tour of the central Puget Sound area speaking to local law enforcement officials, many — including those in Seattle, Bellingham and Bellevue — have reported that the laws have changed very little about their operations. 

“So to any law enforcement executive who says that what the Legislature did is hampering their operations, it may be that they haven't risen to best practices,” Goodman said.

“There seems to be some dissonance between a lot of police agencies who agree with the Legislature and are continuing with their policies and at other agencies who unfortunately are politicizing public safety, which is really disappointing. Public safety is a nonpartisan matter. And public safety is hard work, and we all need to work together to make sure that we're not jeopardizing community safety by making certain discretionary decisions that may be based on political views. That's really unfortunate.”

Since the laws took effect July 25, lawmakers and the Attorney General’s Office have clarified that nothing in the new bills prohibits law enforcement from responding to calls where no crime has been committed.

The Washington state Criminal Justice Training Commission additionally issued guidance clarifying uses of force allowed under HB 1310 and defined an “imminent threat” as “present and apparent opportunity, ability, and intent to immediately cause bodily injury to officer or another person” or “present and apparent opportunity, ability, and intent to immediately cause serious bodily injury or death.”

Johnson and Goodman publicized private communication from the Attorney General’s Office on Aug. 5 in which the Attorney General’s Office clarified that nothing in the police reform legislation prevents law enforcement from responding to community caretaker calls.  The Attorney General’s Office is working on a formal advisory opinion addressing a series of questions put forth by the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs (WASPC) about the reform laws.

While Snaza acknowledged the official advisory opinion may help clarify the laws for his department, he said the informal guidance from the training commission and the Attorney General’s Office carry little weight.

"If you got the (legislative) intent or the letter of the law, which one are you going to follow, if you're in our shoes?” Snaza said. “We have decided that we are going to stick to the letter of the law.”

Earlier this month, WASPC requested a special session to address ambiguities within the reform laws, but a spokesperson for Gov. Jay Inslee responded that there are no plans for a special session.

Goodman said any ambiguities within the police reform laws will be addressed in the upcoming regular session.

“I do not believe there's a need for a special session,” he said. “We are already working closely with the governor's office, the Attorney General's Office and the Criminal Justice Training Commission to provide the certainty that police need between now and the legislative session on mental health crisis calls and the use of non-lethal weapons … If there are any ambiguities in the law that are highlighted, we will clarify them in the next session. But most of the police agencies I'm talking to have not changed their policies and are continuing to respond to calls.”

So far, legislators have identified three ambiguities within the laws themselves that will need to be addressed at an upcoming session, the most glaring being an inconsistency between HB 1310 and HB 1054 regarding the use of shotguns modified to fire non-lethal bean bag rounds.

“And so that definitely needs to be clarified, and Representative Johnson intends to introduce legislation to fix that,” said Goodman. “But if you take a look at the 13 or 14 bills that we passed, in response to anyone who says that those goals are poorly written … in all those pieces of legislation, only three items have been identified. So I think we did a pretty good, comprehensive job legislating.”

The Washington state Criminal Justice Training Commission has issued unofficial guidance on HB 1310, but Goodman said the commission will likely issue legally-binding guidance in the near future to clarify the laws and ease officers’ concerns about disciplinary measures.

“No one's going to get in trouble for doing the right thing,” said Goodman. “The use of less than lethal force is not considered wrongdoing. And wrongdoing is one of the words we used — you can be potentially de-certified for wrongdoing and use of excessive force. If it's not excessive force and it's not wrongdoing, no investigation will be undertaken, no sanctions will be imposed.”

The Attorney General’s Office is working on its formal advisory opinion in response to the questions submitted by WASPC, but Goodman said it will still be some time before that opinion is released.