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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 / Columns

Mosbrucker: New police laws imperil public safety

By Rep. Gina Mosbrucker
Published: September 20, 2021, 6:01am

Why was a law enforcement pursuit called off against a driver of a stolen bus? Why didn’t police track down an armed robbery suspect even when they knew what he was wearing and where he was heading? After a man was shot dead in a parking lot, why did responding deputies get told to pull back in the search for the suspect, who was arrested 13 days later?

In each case, officers were willing to get these suspects off the streets and protect lives. However, new police reform bills prevented them from doing so.

The new laws that took effect July 25 in Washington represent not only some of the most extensive experiments in police reform in the nation but jeopardize public safety. Two of the bills legislative Republicans opposed are especially concerning:

House Bill 1054 establishes requirements for tactics and equipment used by peace officers. House Bill 1310 has to do with the permissible use of force by law enforcement and corrections officers.

The new laws require “probable cause” rather than “reasonable suspicion” to pursue and detain a suspect, making it more difficult for officers to make necessary arrests. Also, officers must exhaust all alternatives before resorting to force in any situation. The legislation also eliminates many de-escalation methods currently used around the nation. These bills are making it much more complicated — and in some cases impossible — for law enforcement to respond to reports of criminal behavior.

The state Supreme Court Blake decision from earlier this year decriminalized simple drug possession and generated a perfect storm as police officers find themselves restrained, especially when responding to mental health calls. Plus, due to the lack of clarity of these laws, firefighters, EMTs and other first responders worry because police officers may no longer be able to secure the scene or provide backup in unsafe situations.

This could not have come at a worse time. In Washington, law enforcement numbers per capita have decreased from 1.24 officers per thousand citizens to 1.19, ranking our state as last in the nation. Last year, overall crime increased in Washington, including more than 2,000 assaults against law enforcement officers in our state — a 6.2 percent increase over 2019 and a 67 percent increase since 2016. Sadly, officers have been killed protecting their communities, including Clark County Sheriff’s Office Detective Jeremy Brown on July 23.

During the 2021 legislative session, majority Democrats embraced the “defund the police” movement and introduced several related bills. Republicans responded by proposing legislative fixes and amendments to reduce their dangerous effects. Fortunately, Republicans stopped an attempt to remove trained K-9 dogs from officers, which provide the opportunity to use less lethal force. While police were not defunded, majority Democrats did disarm the police and prevent them from doing their jobs safely and effectively.

House Republicans believe that a vast majority of police officers are hardworking, dedicated, honorable professionals. We agree if an officer does not act in a way consistent with professional law enforcement expectations, he or she should be held accountable. Officers should be held to a very high standard, but not an impossible one.

Our first responders put their lives on the line every day to keep us and our communities safe. When we run from danger, they run toward it. While we expect to return safely home with our families at the end of the day, these officers never know if they will. Who is protecting those who protect us?

As ranking Republican on the House Public Safety Committee, I believe we owe it to our officers and our communities to hold a special legislative session now to change these new laws and return to a “reasonable suspicion” standard. We should also provide more officer training, more de-escalation options, and more officers — not less — to protect our communities. And let’s work to mend the relationship between our communities and law enforcement. This includes proven community policing solutions in which officers get out of their patrol cars every shift, engage with the public, and show how they are people who truly care about others.

Judge Francis T. Murphy once said, “No more essential duty of government exists than in the protection of the lives of its people. Fail in this, and we fail in everything.” These new laws have created a colossal risk to public safety and the lives of our officers and citizens. Let’s not wait until the regular legislative session begins in January as criminals wreak havoc. Let’s act now to keep Washington safe.

Rep. Gina Mosbrucker, R-Goldendale, serves as ranking Republican on the House Public Safety Committee. She represents the 14th Legislative District.