‘Vigilantism’ a fear in wake of new laws

Sheriff, legislator review police use-of-force limits

Clallam County Sheriff Bill Benedict.

Clallam County Sheriff Bill Benedict.

PORT ANGELES — A state legislator and the Clallam County sheriff painted dire pictures Wednesday in depicting a use-of-force police reform bill that went into effect Sunday.

State Rep. Mike Chapman said HB 1310 may soon be clarified by state Attorney General Bob Ferguson in a manner that will make it less onerous.

The Port Angeles Democrat, who said he has received heat from his constituents for voting against it and six other police reform bills, and Clallam County Sheriff Bill Benedict, a critic of HB 1310, gave their takes on the measure at a virtual county Economic Development Council “Coffee with Colleen” meeting.

Their message followed a critical view of the measures offered by Port Angeles Police Chief Brian Smith and Deputy Chief Jason Viada on Tuesday before the Port Angeles Business Association.

House Bill 1310, which sets use-of-force parameters and was cosponsored by Chapman’s 24th District Democratic colleague, Steve Tharinger of Port Townsend, was criticized by Chapman and Benedict as being unclear and procedurally confining for law enforcement to the detriment of public safety.

“Nature abhors a vacuum,” Benedict said.

“If law enforcement is not out proactively and aggressively working to keep our community safe, something else will fill that, and whether it’s vigilantism or whether it’s more chaos and anarchy, that’s a big concern,” he continued.

“Talking to most citizens that understand this in our county, that’s the most prevalent reaction — well, if the cops aren’t going to defend us, or if the cops are going to look the other way when violent crime is occurring and they’re not going to be able to pursue criminals, we’ll do it ourselves — and that is very scary to me.”

Use of force by law enforcement is allowed under HB 1310 to “protect against criminal conduct where there is probable cause to make an arrest; effect an arrest; prevent an escape as defined under chapter 9A.76 RCW; or protect against an imminent threat of bodily injury to the peace officer, another person, or the person against whom force is being used.”

Officers also are prohibited from questioning someone they suspect of criminal activity, or during an investigation, without probable cause, exposing law enforcement to decertification if it is determined the officer lacks probable cause, Benedict said.

“The effects are profound,” he said.

“Trust me, coming up on a crime scene, you don’t have probable cause for anything,” Benedict said.

State Attorney General Bob Ferguson could give the state Legislature a pathway to make the bills more usable and beneficial by clarifying the legislation, Chapman said.

A special legislative session is unlikely this year, he predicted, adding there seems to be little interest among King County lawmakers to call one, although the push and pull of reforms and cutting back on those reforms will continue.

Chapman and Tharinger, along with Sen. Kevin Van De Wege, represent District 24, which is composed of Clallam, Jefferson and part of Grays Harbor counties.

Chapman said that, along with HB 1310, he also had issues with HB 1054, peace officer tactics; HB 1140, juvenile access to attorneys; HB 1223; recordation of custodial interrogation; HB 1267, Office of Independent Investigations; HB 5051, state oversight, and HB 5066, duty to intervene.

“When you look at those seven bills, you’ll see Mike Chapman voting no,” the former part-time U.S. Customs inspector said, adding he has been accused of supporting institutional racism.

He said they were bad policy and lacked bipartisan support.

“We were so close to this being a good reform package,” Chapman said.

“I think there’s more work to do. I think the step to maybe ask [Ferguson] to take a look at the constitutionality, and then finally we’re going to have to listen to Bill [Benedict], Chief [Brian] Smith.

“We are going to have to make sure that law enforcement continues to be the preemptive form of a civil society because if law enforcement’s authority is taken away, there’s another form, there’s another group out there that would more than happy to step in to quote unquote ‘keep a civil society,’ and we don’t want to see that unleashed in our community as well,” he said, echoing a fear over limiting policing authority that was expressed at the PABA meeting a day earlier.

Chapman and Benedict were asked by moderator Colleen McAleer, the EDC executive director and a Port of Port Angeles commissioner, if they had any proposed language that would “get to the problem of excessive police force” but would also allow officers to continue to be effective.

Chapman said law enforcement agencies on the North Olympic Peninsula already are accredited in a manner that limits use of force, while others in Washington are not.

“We didn’t need to re-invent the wheel,” he said.

Chapman said lawmakers should have provided funding to help other jurisdictions achieve accreditation.

Tharinger said there was no appetite among lawmakers to exempt counties of less than 100,000 population from the legislation or that had accredited law enforcement agencies.

“They felt we needed more uniform policies across the state,” Tharinger said in an interview.

“Across the state, there will be more accountability around the use of force.

“We’ll see if there are some changes that need to be made. These policies aren’t set in stone.”

Clallam County Prosecuting Attorney Mark Nichols said he hopes the Legislature will make “surgical tweaks” to address confusion over the legislation among county prosecutors.

“The net result of [the bills] for me is a very clear message on the one hand that the state of Washington is choosing to prioritize individual human life, arguably and to some degree at the expense of public safety,” he said.

“There was a sanctity-of-human-life theme that has resonated through many of these reform bills.”

He said Washington state was ahead of the curve on police reform by voters passing, in 2018, Initiative 940, which addressed police use of deadly force. Then George Floyd was murdered in police custody in Minneapolis, Minn., on May 25, 2020, triggering an outcry that drove additional reforms.

“My personal belief is that some of the language of the reforms has gone too far,” Nichols said.

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Senior Staff Writer Paul Gottlieb can be reached at 360-452-2345, ext. 55650, or at [email protected].

State Rep. Mike Chapman, D-Port Angeles.

State Rep. Mike Chapman, D-Port Angeles.

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