McCroskey Commentary: Legislators Use a Hammer Instead of a Scalpel With New Police Laws

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This last legislative session has proven once again that when it comes to solving problems, using an axe when a scalpel would be the correct tool is just business as usual in Olympia.

When I went to the police academy, we were taught legal terms and practices, which were clear and easily understood.

Those included search and seizure laws, reasonable suspicion, probable cause, use of deadly force and all the other things necessary to function in a very fast-paced, instant-decision environment. 

We didn’t always get it right, but in the overwhelming number of those high-pressure situations, the cops did what was necessary and correct.

And if we didn’t act correctly, there were lawyers and courts to deal with that.

This past session, continuing with the “it's all the cops’ fault” theme so popular today, the Legislature managed to make things much more murky. As it was already a national trend for officers to simply not engage people they should out of fear of becoming the next CNN headline, this will just make things worse.

Having been out of the business for years, I was waiting to hear from more contemporary professionals of their assessment of the result of what most are describing as confusing, conflicting and not very helpful.

In a recent article, Federal Way Police Chief Andy J. Hwang wrote about that confusion after some meetings with other chiefs in South King County. He is trying to make sense of it and has legal advisers trying to define terms such as “possible,” “available” and “appropriate,” which apparently are required in the legislation. But like so much other nonsense out of Olympia, they didn’t define those terms.

And cops don’t have a legal adviser on the street, but this legislation seems to require one for them to act. It really doesn’t sound well thought out.

He went on to write they are asking the attorney general's office for clarification and have been promised a model use of force policy in a year. Meanwhile, officers in every community in Washington are at risk, including personal liability if they lay hands on a suspect. 

In this business, sometimes that’s what needs to be done.

His optimism that the attorney general, who is salivating to be governor, will be much help is admirable, but sadly I fear it’s misplaced. If nothing else, he’s proven to be very political, and blaming cops is popular among those types these days.

But it’s not just King County and big cities that have concerns. 

The chief of Hoquiam police, Jeff Myers, also has concerns about the unintended consequences of this misguided and incomplete legislation. I say incomplete because if only the lawyers can understand it, and cops need legal advice before acting, well, that’s just not going to be a good outcome. My guess is they will simply avoid contact when they can — also not a great outcome.

Sheriff Rick Scott from Grays Harbor commented on what he’s noticed as an increase of serious crime and a decrease in quality law enforcement candidates here and nationally. With a high number of retirements, fewer replacements for those who do, and no accountability for those preying on victims, it’s not a great recipe for long-term success.

In last Tuesday’s edition of The Chronicle, Richard Stride, Cascade Community Healthcare CEO, dramatically pointed out the most interesting unintended consequence I’ve read so far.

Right here in Lewis County, there is apparently a pretty effective program involving good cooperation between officers and mental health crisis teams to get folks help and keep them out of jail. It involves officers responding with a mental health crisis team and, according to Mr. Stride, it was apparently killed by legislation in House Bill 1310.

Unfunded mandates and unintended consequences are terms that have been around for years.

Olympia and Washington D.C. have made it an art form.

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John McCroskey was Lewis County sheriff from 1995 to 2005. He lives outside Chehalis, and can be contacted at musingsonthemiddlefork@gmail.com.

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