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The following is presented as part of The Columbian’s Opinion content, which offers a point of view in order to provoke thought and debate of civic issues. Opinions represent the viewpoint of the author. Unsigned editorials represent the consensus opinion of The Columbian’s editorial board, which operates independently of the news department.
News / Opinion / Editorials

In Our View: Give new policing laws a chance to perform

The Columbian
Published: July 30, 2021, 6:03am

When new laws take effect, it’s only right and sensible to give them some time to determine if they work as intended. Thus we urge some forbearance as changes to the state’s policing laws go into effect.

Those laws address tactics and equipment, use of force and officers’ duty to intervene should they witness a colleague engaging in inappropriate behavior. The deaths of Black men while in police custody — including George Floyd in Minneapolis and Manuel Ellis in Tacoma — left legislators with little recourse but to act.

The Vancouver Police Department has created a webpage that outlines the changes in state law and how they will affect its policies and training. Clark County Sheriff Chuck Atkins has issued a statement that details his concerns about the new laws and how he anticipates his department will address them.

Both agencies say the laws mean they are going to be doing things differently. As The Columbian’s Jessica Prokop reported, “Under the new legislation, police are required to have probable cause that a crime occurred before using any type of force on potential suspects and people in crisis or conducting a vehicle pursuit in some situations. This means police may no longer respond to certain calls for service.”

Atkins pulls no punches in his concerns about the new laws. In his statement, he said, “Our concern is that the new legislation will have some unintentional consequences that could put the public and police officers in jeopardy. I expect that people could see a reduced police response and extended investigations as a result. I expect that despite our best efforts to the contrary, Clark County could be on a trajectory now to see the same type of increased crime and violence that larger cities are experiencing — elsewhere in Washington, Oregon, and across the country.”

Atkins is not alone. In a July 27 story, the Associated Press reported: “Law enforcement officials have embraced some of the changes and said they share the lawmakers’ goals. But uncertainty about how to comply, combined with a greater possibility of being decertified or held liable, puts officers in a tough position, they say.”

As The Columbian has editorialized previously, there is a place for police reform and for community involvement in improving police procedures. But adequate policing and better policing are not mutually exclusive propositions. Police officers have a difficult job, and they must have the resources to do it effectively.

And while the policing laws that went into effect Sunday were largely intended to make officers more accountable to the public they serve, we hope that ultimately they also provide those officers with additional protections.

The public and law enforcement agencies must give the changes enacted by the Legislature a chance to be put into action. It will take longer than a few days, a few weeks or even a few months to determine if the laws are working as intended. If they are not, then it’s incumbent upon law enforcement officials to press legislators to make necessary changes.

In the meantime, we trust all law enforcement leaders will take the same principled approach as those in Vancouver and the Clark County Sheriff’s Office. To quote Atkins: “We will continue to perform our duties with pride, courage and diligence.”