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Police Reform Law Creates Issues for Officers Responding to Mental Health Calls

September 13, 2021 by Alexa Hornbeck
Metropolitan Police Chief Robert J. Contee III

A new law is dissuading some law enforcement officials in Washington from taking mental health calls, according to a memo from the attorney general’s office. 

“Recently, certain law enforcement agencies may have expressed concerns that House Bill 1310 limits when peace officers may respond to certain calls, including mental health calls,” said Assistant Attorney General Shelley Williams and Deputy Solicitor General Alicia Young in the memo

Several police reform laws passed the legislature earlier this year, but HB 1310 contains language that outlines when an officer may use physical force against a person.

According to the memo, “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.

“Relevant here, Bill 1310 addresses when an officer may use physical force. 

‘Except as otherwise provided under this section, a peace officer may use physical force against a person when necessary to: 

  • Protect against criminal conduct where there is probable cause to make an arrest; 
  • [E]ffect an arrest; 
  • [P]revent an escape as defined under chapter 9A.76 RCW; 
  • or [P]rotect against an imminent threat of bodily injury to the peace officer, another person, or the person against whom force is being used.”

When a peace officer uses physical force, the bill requires the officer to use reasonable care and further provides reasonable care standards.

When possible, the police officer should exhaust available and appropriate de-escalation tactics prior to using any physical force.

According to the bill text, de-escalation tactics that law enforcement can use could include things like, “creating physical distance by employing tactical repositioning, and repositioning as often as necessary to maintain the benefit of time, distance, and cover, or calling for additional resources like a crisis intervention team or mental health professionals.”

Law enforcement officials in Washington are now voicing concerns about the ambiguous language in the bill that is creating confusion for many policing departments in the state about whether or not officers should respond to mental health calls.

Shortly before the law went into effect on July 25, a statement was issued by the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs that the use of force “may significantly reduce the types of calls to which law enforcement will respond, especially if they do not involve a crime or may be better directed to other resources.” 

The Chief of the Spokane Police Department also said that the law will change the response to mental health calls.

“There will be a change in the types of calls we go to, and the types of calls we can no longer go to,”  Chief Craig Meidl of the Spokane Law Enforcement Agency during a press conference.

In response to the growing concerns from the community about HB 1310, the Olympia Police Department issued a statement to reassure the community that they are not just “an organization with uniformed officers with guns,” but have crisis response units and designated crisis responders who are licensed mental health professionals. 

Despite concerns from law enforcement, the memo from the attorney general’s office makes clear that HB 1310, “does not address when law enforcement officers may respond to calls, including community caretaking calls, which do not involve criminal conduct,” and that these calls should remain part of a law enforcement officer’s duties.

The Washington Fraternal Order of Police sent a request for a formal opinion from the attorney general on police tactics and use of force.

“It’s unfortunate that some in law enforcement are misinterpreting these laws, disregarding what we believe is clear legislative intent and are using these changes to politicize their implementation. This is a time for leadership and for those of us in law enforcement to get this right. Proper implementation of these bills is too important to do otherwise,” said Marco Monteblanco, president of the Washington Fraternal Order of Police in the statement. 

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