September 2, 2021

Washington’s New Police Accountability Reforms

YWCA Spokane serves approximately 17,000 survivors of intimate partner domestic violence each year. We know it’s crucial to work effectively with the police to stop domestic violence and ensure survivors have enough trust to pick up the phone and call when they need help. Unfortunately, because of the danger of being retraumatized by police or agitating their abuser, many survivors don’t reach out to the police when their safety is at risk. As domestic violence calls have been on the rise through the pandemic, ensuring that interactions between law enforcement and survivors are helpful rather than harmful remains one of our top priorities. 

Recently many police reform bills were passed by the state legislature, including HB 1310, HB 1054, SB 5051, and SB 5476. These bills were signed into law by Governor Inslee and have already begun taking effect. While the response from the Sheriff’s office fostered concern that these new laws will stifle law enforcement’s ability to do their jobs, the intent of this legislation is to restore public trust in law enforcement and create greater accountability in policing. 

Evidence shows that trust is imperative to build, because without it our government can’t serve our communities effectively. According to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development values “such as high levels of integrity, fairness and openness of institutions are strong predictors of public trust. Similarly, government’s competence – its responsiveness and reliability in delivering public services and anticipating new needs – are crucial for boosting trust in institutions.”

Law enforcement is in the unique position of serving some of the most vulnerable in our communities, such as historically excluded groups and those enduring violence at home, while bearing the responsibility of being placed in dangerous situations everyday. By establishing clear policies around police conduct, this new legislation aims to protect both law enforcement and the public in crisis situations that often make both parties vulnerable. 

The new police reform legislation does not contain statements preventing law enforcement from responding to domestic violence or mental health crisis calls. If you would like to read the language of the new laws in their entirety click on the links at the bottom of the page.

The impact of the new reforms

HB 1310, a bill that has been commonly referenced by the Sheriff’s office and news publications, sets a new standard for use of force. HB 1310 asks officers to use “reasonable care” when it comes to exerting force, to de-escalate whenever possible and “use the least amount of physical force necessary to overcome actual resistance under the circumstances.” This is intended to reduce the misuse of deadly force, so that fewer people are harmed and police have the authority to call for community resources as backup rather than solely relying on other officers and potentially escalating violence. The law states, “it is the fundamental duty of law enforcement to preserve and protect all human life.” That duty comes above all else. 

Misinterpretation of these new laws however could lead to law enforcement not taking action when it is necessary or required by law. King 5 quoted a Sedro-Woolley officer saying that his team was unable to help a man in crisis because “the new law prohibits officers from touching the man and taking him to a care provider.” While SB 5476 sets a standard that officers must take an individual suffering from a mental health crisis or drug abuse to a treatment facility rather than arresting them, it does not state that you cannot touch the person to do so. These types of claims are why Rep. Jesse Johnson, a sponsor of HB 1310 and HB 1054, is encouraging law enforcement agencies to seek clarity when needed, by speaking “to the [Attorney General’s] office to make sure they are following the law correctly to protect everyone involved the best they can.” The state Attorney General’s office may also need to release ‘informal opinions’ clarifying some of the information that is being misinterpreted by law enforcement. 

We join in with the many other organizations in the community that are calling for our local law enforcement agencies to continue to act in accordance with the laws, safely and effectively, enhancing public trust and fairness. We are also joining in the call for greater clarity regarding this legislation from the state Attorney General’s office. 

Find the legislation as passed here

HB 1054 | Relating to tactics and equipment
HB 1088 | Relating to impeachment of law enforcement officers
HB 1089 | Relating to audits of officers and law enforcement agencies
HB 1140 | Relating to juvenile access to attorneys when contacted by law enforcement
HB 1223 | Relating to recording interrogations
HB 1267 | Relating to investigating police use of force
HB 1310 | Relating to permissible uses of force by law enforcement and correctional officers
SB 5051 | Relating to state oversight and accountability of officers
SB 5055 | Relating to establishing a statewide roster for law enforcement
SB 5066 | Relating to duty to intervene in excessive use of force situations
SB 5135 | Relating to unlawfully summoning a police officer
SB 5259 | Relating to law enforcement data collection
SB 5263 | Relating to limiting the felony bar affirmative defense
SB 5353 | Relating to facilitating community engagement with law enforcement
SB 5476 | Relating to reducing harm in prevention and treatment of behavioral health and substance use disorders

Additional Resources

By: Rachel Dannen

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