As states across the country pass legislation concerning the use of force by police, Washington state is seeing some unintended consequences, after passing numerous new laws in support of police accountability.
In Lacey Washington police are reporting cases where they are unable to help those who are suffering from mental health crises. Often having to leave the situation until the person becomes a serious threat to those around them. One such case happened recently, when a report came in that a man was threating tenants in an apartment building and pounding on the door to the main office. A Designated Crisis Responder(DCR) on the scene determined that the man was in the middle of a mental health crisis and asked that he be detained and transported to the hospital. Due to the new laws and restrictions placed on law enforcement in Washington the officers refused, only to be called to a different scene the following day. Only this time the man had physically assaulted a women on the street.
When the first officer on scene arrived he found the suspect holding a bottle and quickly ordered him to his knees. Instead of complying with the officer the suspect the began to yell at which point the officer pulled his taser and called for back up. Two other officers arrived and began trying to verbally de-escalate the situation. When efforts failed the officers were forced to resort to physical force.
It's cases like this, where officers are forced to walk away from someone who is suffering only to be called back when things escalate beyond their control, that some fear will become more common as the new laws go into effect. Cases where law enforcement and DCR responders will no longer be able to support and help each other and those within their communities who are suffering through a mental health crisis. Some police in Washington say that under the new rules and liabilities that officers can face, police will be less likely to assist with civil, or non-criminal matters that might result in them having to use force. Such as detaining or transporting someone who is suffering from a mental health crisis.
Chief Jon Weiks, of Tumwater Washington, in a letter titled "Mental Health Crisis & Police Response" says that "officers will be detaining fewer people who are experiencing mental health crisis and may not respond unless and 'imminent threat' or criminal activity is identified." Because, the new law say the physical force should only be used to prevent an escape, when there is probable cause, or to protect themselves or others from a imminent threat or harm. The use of force measure aims to address discriminatory policing and excessive force by requiring officers to act with reasonable care and use de-escalation tactics. It also states, that if there is no imminent threat and no crime has been committed or is about to be committed, that officers should consider leaving the area. While also instructing officers to consider the characteristics and conditions of the person, including but not limited to whether the person is showing signs of a mental health crisis or behavioral impairment, before resorting to physical force of any kind.
Democratic state Rep. Roger Goodman, who chairs the House Public Safety Committee was planning on meeting with sheriffs and other law enforcement personnel to discuss their concerns regarding officer liability and mental health crisis. According to an article by OBP Goodman said that "the goal of the new law, was to reduce the use of physical force, not get police out of the business of assisting mental health calls." He also states that if an "individual is suffering from a mental health crisis and is a threat to themselves or others, police are obligated under the law to take them to a secure, therapeutic facility." Goodman went on to say that he is "open to amending the the law to clarify its intent."