Submitted by Mike Zaro, Chief, Lakewood Police.
There has been a lot of talk in Washington lately about the changes to policing that came from our recent legislative session. Many of the changes are administrative in nature and won’t necessarily be noticed by our community. There are a few, though, that will have a big impact on our response and how we handle some situations. With that, I want to take this opportunity to share the potential impacts of some of those changes.
The two bills with the most significant operational impact for us were House Bills 1054 and 1310. They are respectively referred to as the Police Tactics Bill and Use of Force Bill. House Bill 1054 does things like restrict the types of equipment and techniques we can use as well as limits our ability to engage in vehicle pursuits.
In my estimation, though, the biggest change is found in the Use of Force bill. This bill changes the legal threshold that must be met for officers to use any amount of physical force. There now has to be probable cause for arrest or the person has to pose an immediate threat to the officer, someone else, or themselves (e.g. a suicidal person). On its surface this sounds reasonable but there are operational impacts that could change how our community sees us respond to certain incidents.
First, it’s important to understand a couple of key concepts. There are two legal thresholds for physical detention by a police officer; reasonable suspicion and probable cause. Reasonable suspicion is when an officer has facts and circumstances that would lead a reasonable officer to believe that a specific individual MAY have been involved in a specific crime. Probable cause, on the other hand, is when an officer has evidence and information that a specific crime occurred and a specific individual was likely responsible. Probable cause is the threshold that must be met for an actual arrest. Let’s look at an example to demonstrate the difference between both.
A store clerk calls 911 to report that she was just robbed by a white male with purple hair, a green shirt, and carrying a brown backpack. The suspect fled the store on foot immediately after the robbery. An officer is in the area quickly and sees a white male with purple hair, a green shirt and a brown backpack running down the street away from the store. The unique description of the suspect and the proximity to the store would lead a reasonable person to believe he may be involved. This is reasonable suspicion. Under the previous law, the officer would be able to use physical force to detain him pending further investigation. The officer yells for him to stop but he keeps running. The officer then runs after the subject, tackles him (a use of force), and is able to get him in handcuffs. A second officer arrives a short time later and helps conduct the investigation. The clerk positively identifies the person detained by the first officer as the suspect in the robbery. She reported $250 in cash was taken during the robbery and that exact amount of money is found in the suspect’s pocket. Finally, they review in-store surveillance video and it clearly shows the detained subject committing the robbery. With all of this evidence they have now met the threshold for probable cause and take the suspect to jail.
As you can see from this example, reasonable suspicion usually happens very quickly but probable cause takes time to develop. In this scenario, under the new laws the first responding officer would not have been able to use any force to detain the running suspect because he only had reasonable suspicion, not probable cause. When the running suspect refused to comply with any verbal commands to stop, the officer would have had to let him go and continue on to the store where he would conduct the investigation and work to identify the suspect at a later date.
That was a very rudimentary example of the difference between reasonable suspicion and probable cause and how our response to certain crimes will be different moving forward. Our response to reported crimes, though, aren’t the only situations affected by the Use of Force bill. We also respond to a considerable number of incidents involving people in crisis and nothing in the new law differentiates between a criminal suspect and a person in crisis. Now, let’s look at an example of a situation in which officers may have to walk away when we would previously have been able to intervene.
Officers respond to Ft. Steilacoom Park for a report of a male sitting in the grass and yelling at trees. He has not committed a crime. When officers arrive they find the male yelling at trees, clearly hallucinating, and eating dog waste found on the ground next to him. When officers try to communicate with him he either doesn’t respond or screams incoherently. Medical aid and a mental health professional arrive and everyone is in agreement that the male needs psychiatric evaluation and is unable to make that decision for himself. He screams “no” when officers try to convince him to go to the hospital. Despite the clear need for help, this person has not committed a crime and is not an IMMEDIATE threat to himself or anyone else. Simply picking the person up against his will to put him in an ambulance would constitute a use of force and therefore would not be allowed under the new law. Officers must then walk away when we previously may have involuntarily committed the person for evaluation and treatment.
I’m sure some of you are thinking these examples are the rare occurrence when this would apply, but our officers are faced with these types of decisions on a routine basis. In light of the new laws our responses in both of these examples are significant departures from how we have traditionally responded and require an entirely different mindset from our officers. Our officers have always trained and practiced to look for the suspect as described to them over the radio while on their way to the call. We now change our focus to responding to the scene first, conducting the investigation, and working to develop probable cause before taking any other action, even if that means bypassing the suspect. We also have to accept that there will be times when we will need to walk away from people in crisis because we are unable to physically take them for treatment. This is a big ask of officers who aren’t used to walking away from people who need help.
While this is admittedly going to be a difficult change in practice for us, these are the laws we have been given and we will make every effort to comply. I also want to clarify that none of this means the Lakewood Police Department will stop responding to calls. What we do when we arrive might be different, but we will still do what we can to help. I’m confident we will adapt and we will continue to keep our community safe and provide the service you deserve.
The views expressed in this article are the writer’s own.
Bless you, Chief Zaro. You are doing a most difficult job under the most difficult constraints. Thank you for keeping us updated on the situation.
Joseph Boyle says
Thank you for you clear explanation of how those who are suppose to represent the citizens, (politicians), have handcuffed the police thus making it more difficult for the police to handcuff the criminals.
I have a rough draft of an article I intend to submit that relates to this same subject that will include a real life example of an incident at the Lakewood Mall in the 1990s.
The Reasonable Suspicion standard that was lawful at the time, saved the day and possibly many lives.
Under the new law, should the same kind of incident occur, Lakewood could easily make national news with an abhorant body count at the Lakewood Mall.
I hope politicians wake up with some common sense and take the handcuffs off the cops before too many citizens are unnecessarily victimized.
Joseph Boyle – Former Lakewood Citizen – 51 years.
John Arbeeny says
Chief Zaro: how do these rules apply if at all to the use of deadly force? For instance, if the white male with with purple hair, a green shirt, and carrying a brown backpack had not only robbed the store but had assaulted the clerk or even worse killed the clerk?
From your description it appears that the legislature in its “wisdom” has declared an “open season” for criminals.
Joan Campion says
When will the “summer of love” mindset change and the voters and politicians wise up? Maybe when they are personally affected. No wonder many are leaving the state.
It’s good to still have your input Joe Boyle. A voice of reason.
KM Hills says
I am not sure if anyone is working on this already but the best way to proceed is to remember that Washington is an Initiative and Referendum state. This would be a perfect time to tell the politicians that they once again are misguided in setting new laws and that We The People expect more clearly thought out legislation happening before laws hit the books. I am more than willing to help if anyone has been involved in the Initiative and Referendum process.
John Arbeeny says
This might be a perfect time to launch a referendum to overturn these limitations placed upon police. As a City of Lakewood Council member I pushed for Initiative/Referendum in Lakewood which won by an overwhelming victory in an advisory vote. The signatures needed to subject a law to referendum is based on the votes received in the last election. This is an off year election when the total number of votes will be a lot lower and the total number of signatures thus easier to obtain to put the ballot on the next election.
Alan Hart says
Thank you Chief Zaro! Useful information. Examples help to clarify tyhe effect on policing. I hope we do not see a reversal in our downward trend of overall crime.
Thank you for the clarification of these procedures that the average citizen probably wouldn’t understand. For some reason, politicians jumped on the bandwagon of police reform when protests continued after several unfortunate deaths around the country, usually during the commission of a crime. How any educated and informed person could think that reducing the police force would lead to a safer community is mind-boggling. The only thing this has done is make it a free-for-all for the law breakers. We truly have become a place where the inmates are running the asylum. After seeing the rise in the crime rate everywhere, I wonder if the politicians will realize their mistake. If not, those of us with a working brain need to fix it ourselves!
Thank you to all of the police officers who continue to protect us under abominable circumstances. The majority of us support you wholeheartedly and will work to fix this.
Sue B says
Thank you Chief Zaro.
I am so proud of our Lakewood Police. Our city has benefited greatly because of their diligence and perseverance. They go through so much just to protect us. I pray for their protection and commitment to keep doing their best. The elected officials need to come to their senses and pass laws that protect the good law abiding people. We don’t have body guards or live in gated communities, so you may not need the police, but we sure do. The decisions you make can mean the difference between life & death.
Why are our police seen as the problem when they are the only solution?
Stay the course….the good people are with you.
Jim B says
Remove the liability protection that elected officials have and allow them to be sued for the death and destruction that their fool hardy policies cause and I am sure you will see more thoughtful and effective laws.
One of consequences of these dangerous ideas is the increased risk of violence for our citizens. With reduced protection from the police our citizens will need to acquire protection to avoid being victims.
MIKE WRIGHT says
We can thank our radical, left-wing, socialist Democratic state legislature (and by extension the voters who voted them into office) for handcuffing the police. Jay Inslee is complicit by signing the bill into law rather than vetoing it. They would rather protect the criminals than the innocent victims.. What would happen if a crime was committed against one of the legislators that required police response? The police would respond as they always do, then say “we can’t do anything because of the new laws you passed hamstringing us”. The legislators would scream bloody murder, followed by a rapid repeal of the new laws. I can’t wait to retire in a couple of years and move back to my hometown in Michigan and get the hell out of this toilet of a state.