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.