Law enforcement officials bemoan laws they say hamper their work

Drug possession, pursuits specific areas of police concern

PORT ANGELES — Anarchy.

To Brian Smith, Port Angeles chief of police, the term’s definition is pretty simple — and highly disturbing.

“It’s the beginning of anarchy when a trooper doing their job in traffic enforcement is faced with optional compliance,” he said Tuesday at the Port Angeles Business Association (PABA) breakfast meeting before about 30 patrons at Joshua’s Restaurant & Lounge. “It limits our ability to actively engage the criminal element.”

Smith was referring to recent evidence about drivers increasingly failing to stop for State Patrol troopers pursuing them on state highways.

The occurrences could be related to a Washington legislative bill passed last year that bars high-speed pursuits except in limited circumstances.

Smith and cross-agency colleague Brian King, Clallam County Sheriff’s Office chief criminal deputy, tag-teamed a discussion about legislative laws their agencies will target in the 2023 legislative session. They say the laws have hampered their ability to effectively do their jobs.

Two subjects dominated their discussion: the Blake decision and the ability to pursue vehicles related to traffic infractions.

In Blake, the state Supreme Court declared unconstitutional Washington’s liability drug possession statute, which criminalized unintentional, unknowing possession of controlled substances without a prescription. The decision effectively overturned many simple drug possession offenses in the state.

House Bill 1054, on the other hand, is a sweeping police tactics law passed in 2021 that, among other restrictions to law enforcement behavior, severely curtailed high-speed pursuits.

To pursue, officers must now believe a person in the vehicle has committed or is committing a violent offense or sex offense, an escape, or driving under the influence.

And all of this has King and Smith tied in knots.

One of their primary concerns? Property crime.

“Our property crime is skyrocketing, and some of this is a result of these police reforms and our inability to pursue those vehicles,” said King, who is seeking election to Clallam County sheriff.

“Our criminals out there are not stopping for us. Talk about being extremely inefficient in our ability to carry out and do our job.”

Drugs, too, are a huge part of the problem in Clallam County, King added, fueling just about every other type of crime.

“We work with highly addicted individuals every single day in our community, and there’s just no consequences for simple possession right now,” he said. “The sheer amount of drugs that exist in our community is scary. We have a tremendous supply of drugs, and there’s plenty of demand.”

Furthermore, law enforcement officers are now hand-tied in their efforts to help drug-addicted people in crisis. Forceful detention must be at least part of the solution, King said, but not all of it.

“To many of these folks, we look just like dragons,” he said, referring to people high on drugs. “They’re in a drug-induced psychosis, so we can talk to them all day long, but force is a reality of our work and job, and if we don’t have that ability, we can’t carry it out.

“We don’t see people changing without the incarceration and the arrest, and the consequences, and the opportunity to actually enter treatment. Right now, there’s no opportunity, and they are not incentivized.”

Added Smith, who suggested legislators are asking law enforcement agencies to be passive and reactive: “It (Blake) has to go back to being a drug law that we can actually enforce.”

On the subject of vehicle pursuit, the issue to Smith and King was even more black and white.

Explained Smith: “The new dimension that we got in 2021 is that, before we can get to whether it’s safe to pursue, we have to figure out can we legally pursue. We need to be able to get back to — is it safe to pursue.”

Non compliance, moreover, is a concern not just for highway patrol troopers, but also for local deputies and officers. If pursuit is mostly off the table, it leaves them with few options.

“It is almost a daily occurrence across the state and in Clallam County that one of our law enforcement agencies lights up a car and it does not stop for us. And some of these are stolen cars,” King said. “We spend a great amount of time training our deputies and our police officers on responsible pursuits and judgement. We know we can make those decisions. We don’t need policy and legislation to tell us when we can do this and when we can’t.”

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Paul Dunn can be reached at 360-452-2345, ext. 55650, or [email protected]

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