OLYMPIA — State legislative reform measures inspired by last year’s nationwide protests over racial injustice and instances of police brutality are ill-adapted to law enforcement on the North Olympic Peninsula, the 24th District’s Democratic lawmakers said last week.
Proposals include prohibiting officers from using chokeholds and neck-restraint measures and from deploying unleashed police dogs for arrest and apprehension (HB 1054).
Law enforcement officials from Clallam and Jefferson counties said the legislation, more than 10 bills in all when including companion House-Senate proposals, would make life more dangerous for officers and the public, taking vital tools away from their peacekeeping duties.
Contained in a half-dozen bills, they would establish a last-resort or imminent-danger standard for deadly use of force for law enforcement and corrections officers (HB 1310) and put in place community oversight boards for departments with 10 or more officers by 2025 (HB 1203).
Port Angeles Police Chief Brian Smith and Clallam County Sheriff Bill Benedict gave a scathing review of the legislation last week at a virtual Port Angeles Chamber of Commerce presentation.
“There is some really wacky, crazy legislation that is being proposed in Olympia right now,” Benedict told participants.
“The good news is our three legislators — [state Reps.] Steve Tharinger, Mike Chapman, [state Sen.] Kevin Van De Wege — are solidly on our side, but we fear that there could be some stuff that will affect [us],” Benedict continued.
“It will make us doing our job much, much more difficult, and/or it will just make it more expensive. And these are two things that we don’t need to be faced with right now.”
Tharinger said Friday the bills originated among lawmakers mainly from Puget Sound’s heavily populated areas.
“They are a pretty broad brush that’s coming out of the I-5 corridor,” the Port Townsend resident said.
“The hope is to be able to limit them to separate specific smaller jurisdictions from larger jurisdictions.”
Tharinger is one of 36 cosponsors of HB 1054, which focuses on discrimination.
“The legislature intends to address excessive force and discriminatory policing by establishing a requirement for law enforcement and correctional officers to act with reasonable care when carrying out their duties, including using de-escalation tactics and alternatives to deadly force,” the bill says.
“Further, the legislature intends to address public safety concerns by limiting the use of deadly force to very narrow circumstances where there is an imminent threat of serious physical injury or death.”
He said he signed on to the bill because he was involved in early stakeholder meetings that included law enforcement.
“The final bill seems to have provided language that doesn’t have that law enforcement or stakeholder buy-in,” he said.
The police dog provision in 1054, for example, “does not fit” the district, he added, although there is more legislative support for banning choke holds and neck-restraint measures.
Law enforcement agencies on the Peninsula are accredited and already employ many measures called for in the legislation., Tharinger said.
“We’ll see how this process evolves,” Tharinger said. “As a co-sponsor, that gives me a little more of an ability to make amendments.”
HB 1310 requires officers to “use available and appropriate less lethal alternatives before using deadly force, and make less lethal alternatives issued to the officer reasonably available for their use.”
“That causes me to lose sleep at night as it’s written,” Port Angeles Police Chief Brian Smith said last week in an interview.
Smith told chamber meeting participants that fewer than 70 of more than 22,000 police department calls for service in 2020 involved use of force, or “any kind of force beyond handcuffs,” he said.
“In a very, very small percentage of cases do we or the sheriff’s department use any kind of force. Even people that have done bad things that are gong to go to prison, they cooperate with us, they do what we tell them,” Smith said.
The use-of-force legislation “is one that gets our attention,” Deputy Police Chief Jason Viada of Port Angeles said of the raft of legislation.
“We are most concerned about what appears to be a duty to retreat.
“We are also concerned about a prohibition from even responding to situations where we would need to use force, such as violent crimes in progress, so this bill is particularly startling.”
Of particular concern were limitations on the use of police dogs.
“The unintended consequences can be huge,” Smith said.
“Nobody will benefit if a law eliminates our two canine teams. We have nothing to replace it.”
Jefferson County Undersheriff Andy Pernsteiner said deputies borrow police dogs, known as K9s, from the Clallam County Sheriff’s Office and Sequim Police Department.
“The nice thing about having a K9 is that once people hear a dog barking, they typically give up. Everyone’s going to run if we don’t have a K9 there,” Pernsteiner said.
He also was concerned about prohibiting neck-restraint holds that restrict blood flow to the brain, also contained in HB 1054.
The hold is applied on both sides of the neck, rendering a person unconscious in seconds, as opposed to a choke hold, which restricts air flow by applying pressure on the front of the neck.
The Legal Liability Risk Management Institute (llrmi.com) says neck restraints are less deadly than choke holds.
“I basically have serious concerns about getting rid of vascular neck restraints,” Pernsteiner said.
“Used properly, there is no long-lasting effect. It’s safer for officers and safer for the other person involved.
As to the ability to apply a neck restraint rather than a choke hold in the heat of a scuffle, “It all comes down to training,” Pernsteiner said.
Community oversight boards would receive and investigate citizen complaints on law enforcement conduct, including for incidents involving use of force, discriminatory stops and profiling activity, and “adversarial actions” between law enforcement and community members at public assemblies.
“Recent violent interactions between law enforcement officers and community members have sounded an urgent call for a renewed and multifaceted approach to increase police accountability in Washington. Internal police oversight mechanisms have proven to be insufficient,” the legislation says.
Pernsteiner’s view of establishing such a board for Jefferson County was that it all depends on what the board knows about law enforcement.
“If they are people who basically want to abolish law enforcement, it probably wouldn’t be very good,” he said.
Smith said funding a community board would entail allocating money better spent on more officers, and would, in effect, turn oversight of law enforcement over to the board.
“All of us want some transparency,” Tharinger said.
“I don’t think this is a problem in my district, in the 24th District and the Peninsula, but it probably is in bigger cities and bigger jurisdictions.
“This is a legislative process, and we’ll see how it works out.”
Chapman, a former U.S. customs inspector, has listened to sponsors of the bills make their points. The Port Angeles resident said he will side with law enforcement.
“They make a compelling argument that the pieces of legislation make these communities less safe,” Chapman said Friday.
Van De Wege and his senate colleagues on the ways and means committee have reviewed SB 5051, which addressed law enforcement personnel policies.
It expands background investigation requirements and makes public the complaints, investigations, and disciplinary actions for certified officers.
“The problem I have with 5051 is that it also sets up a state commission weighted with public folks that would have the right to go in and intervene in any department based on citizen complaints,” Van De Wege said Friday.
“Based on a citizen complaint, the state could come in and start investigating a department without local review.”
Bill language, summaries and reports can be reviewed by going to https://app.leg.wa.gov/billinfo/ and inserting the bill number into the search bar.
Senior Staff Writer Paul Gottlieb can be reached at 360-452-2345, ext. 55650, or at email@example.com.