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Inslee signs bills clarifying police reform laws in Washington

A police officer is seated in his car. He types on a laptop. The patch on his shirt sleeve says Lynnwood Police.
Gene Johnson
The Associated Press file
Police officer Denis Molloy works in his vehicle on Nov. 17, 2021, in Lynnwood. Molloy is part of the Lynnwood Police Department's community health and safety section.

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee on Friday signed two bills fixing parts of a sweeping package of police reform measures that lawmakers passed in the wake of 2020's racial justice protests.

One of the newly signed bills makes clear officers may use force to help detain or transport people in behavioral health crisis, while the other corrects an oversight that seemed to inadvertently prohibit police departments from possessing certain less-lethal weapons.

“When we take steps forward we learn and we improve,” Inslee said. “I’m glad legislators have had an open mind to listen to what is happening in the field and respond.”

Also on Friday, the state Senate passed a more controversial alteration to the 2020 police reform bills on a 32-16 vote — this one allowing police to use force to prevent people from fleeing temporary investigative stops. That measure already passed the House and now goes to Inslee.

The Legislature in 2021 approved the nation's most ambitious package of police reform and accountability measures following the murder of George Floyd, a Black man, by Minneapolis police and the protests that ensued.

They included House Bill 1310, saying officers could use force only when they had probable cause to make an arrest or to prevent imminent injury, and that they were required to use appropriate de-escalation tactics if possible.

Departments across the state said those restrictions put officers in a difficult spot: If they were arriving at a crime scene and did not yet have probable cause to make an arrest, they had no power to stop people from fleeing. Police accountability groups said that was by design, to ensure police didn't use force against the wrong person — too often, minorities.

The restrictions also left unclear whether officers could use force in certain noncriminal situations, such as to detain people in crisis or transport them for behavioral health evaluation or treatment.

As a result, the law backfired on some of the state's most vulnerable residents. Many police departments declined to use force to transport people in crisis, and it made it more difficult for mental health professionals to get them help.

Inslee on Friday signed House Bill 1735, which makes clear that the Legislature never intended to stop police from using force in community caretaking situations. It also says officers can use force to execute search warrants and to take minors into protective custody.

Officers are still required to exercise reasonable care and appropriate de-escalation tactics before using force.

“This bill strikes a balance between necessary police reform and ensuring that officers can still help people in crisis,” Inslee said.

The bill's signing was an immense relief for Diane Ostrander, of Redmond, who had urged lawmakers to clarify the law. As her 34-year-old son went through a psychotic break that left him homeless for much of December, she repeatedly begged police to take him to get help — only to hear from the officers that they couldn't unless he committed a crime.

He finally did just that in January, when he assaulted her. He's been at psychiatric facilities since shortly after his arrest.

The bill, she said, “means my son will never have to go homeless or get arrested again for being in a mental health crisis.”

The other measure Inslee signed fixes a mistake in another bill that was passed as part of the 2021 police reform package. That one restricted police departments from having certain military equipment, including firearms of greater than .50 caliber. That inadvertently banned some bean-bag shotguns or other less-lethal weapons.

The attorney general's office issued an analysis last year saying that the measure clearly was not directed at less-lethal weapons and that departments could continue using them.

Nevertheless, some departments put the weapons away pending clarification by the Legislature.

Both bills passed the Senate unanimously after previously being passed by the House.

Another police reform-related measure remains alive in the Legislature, easing restrictions that lawmakers adopted last year for high-speed pursuits. The House on Friday approved Senate Bill 5919, which lessens the standard for when some pursuits may occur from probable cause to reasonable suspicion. The Senate must concur with amendments made by the House before it can advance to Inslee.

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