Tuesday, September 21, 2021
Sept. 21, 2021

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Donnelly: Honor fallen sergeant by listening to police

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Crime, crime-fighting and their sad impacts have shocked Vancouver in recent days. As we go about our business, we ask ourselves what our community has become. Perhaps we could all do better, but how?

Early on July 22, two men broke into downtown Vancouver’s historic Kiggins Theater. They stole equipment and then brazenly returned several times during the night. The next day, 15-year veteran Clark County Sheriff’s Detective Jeremy Brown, a member of the regional drug task force, was shot and killed while conducting surveillance of suspects with past criminal records.

The violation of Kiggins Theater, an Art Deco building symbolizing Vancouver’s treasured downtown core, is discouraging. Local businesses are emerging from the near-death experience of COVID. Even a “minor” property crime such as this strikes at a business owner’s will to survive. Thankfully, no one was hurt.

Tragically, that was not the case the next day. Brown’s death has elicited a community response of palpable sorrow. Elected officials, the NAACP, and many others have issued statements. It is a struggle to find the right words. The last death of a police officer killed in the line of duty was 17 years ago.

Sheriff Chuck Atkins’ tribute was especially moving in praising Brown, and in promoting him to sergeant posthumously. But there are no words truly sufficient under the circumstances. Is it time to consider that deeds, not words, are called for?

We justifiably mourn our fallen law enforcement, but do we listen to them respectfully enough before tragedy strikes? It seems we could be better listeners. We could match words with deeds.

On July 25, police reform measures took effect, enacted by the Legislature. House Bill 1054 restricts the use of tear gas, defensive tactics, equipment — and law enforcement’s ability to pursue a suspect in a vehicle. House Bill 1310 limits police interaction with “noncompliant members of the public.”

Some of these changes were evidently imposed on law enforcement rather than crafted with its concurrence. The Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs, in a tactfully worded release July 21, tells us that “we are deeply concerned that some policing reforms may have unintended outcomes that result in increased levels of confusion, frustration, victimization, and increased crime within our communities.”

In a July 23 statement, the day Brown was shot to death, the Pierce County Sheriff’s Department also expressed reservations: “you may now see us leave calls that we previously would have handled; these calls will now need to be handled by new programs, systems, or responders that have not yet been envisioned, created, or funded. You may now see suspects walk away or drive away from a variety of crimes … After July 25, the officer cannot use any type of ‘physical force’ to detain a suspect until ‘probable cause’ has been established.”

Sheriff Atkins agreed that the reforms are risky to both law enforcement and the public: “I expect that people could see a reduced police response and extended investigations as a result.” If there is no crime or imminent threat, “deputy response must leave or could not respond, and if deputies do respond, they risk being decertified,” (Columbian, July 24). Deputies will respond to more calls by phone.

No law enforcement professional relishes risking a career just for mistakenly showing up in violation of arcane rules. Recruiting of much-needed police replacements will now face even more challenges.

The best tribute to Brown will be to listen to law enforcement’s advice about how to do their jobs safely and effectively.

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