Chief Zaro Discusses Recent Police Reform Legislation

Lakewood Police Chief Mike Zaro introduces statewide legislation that affects police tactics and responses to calls.

There has been a lot of talk in Washington about changes to policing from our recent legislative session. Many changes are administrative in nature and may not be noticed by our community. There are a few, though, that may affect how police handle some situations. I would like to discuss the potential impacts of some of those changes.

The two bills with the most significant effects for us were House Bills 1054 and 1310. They are respectively titled the Police Tactics Bill and Use of Force Bill. House Bill 1054 does things like restrict the types of equipment and techniques we can use, and limits our ability to engage in vehicle pursuits.

In my estimation, the biggest change is found in the Use of Force bill. This bill changes the legal threshold that must be met for officers to use any amount of physical force. There now has to be probable cause for arrest, or the person must pose an immediate threat to the officer, someone else, or themselves.

There are two legal thresholds for physical detention by a police officer; reasonable suspicion and probable cause. Reasonable suspicion is when facts and circumstances would lead a reasonable officer to believe that a specific individual may have been involved in a particular crime. Probable cause is when an officer has evidence that a specific crime occurred and a specific individual was likely responsible.

Let’s say that a store clerk calls 911 to report that she was just robbed by a white male with purple hair, a green shirt, and carrying a brown backpack. The suspect fled the store on foot immediately after the robbery.

An officer is in the area and sees a white male with purple hair, a green shirt and a brown backpack running down the street away from the store. The unique description of the suspect and the proximity to the store would lead a reasonable person to believe he may be involved. This is reasonable suspicion.

Reasonable suspicion usually happens quickly, but probable cause takes much more time to develop. Under previous law, the officer would be able to use physical force to detain him pending further investigation. Under the new laws, the responding officer would not have been able to use any force to detain the running suspect.

When the running suspect refused to comply with any verbal commands to stop, the officer would have had to let him go to continue on to the store where he would conduct the investigation and work to identify the suspect at a later date.

We also respond to many incidents involving people in crisis, and nothing in the new law differentiates between a criminal suspect and a person in crisis.

Let’s look at a situation in which officers may have to walk away when they might have previously intervened. Officers respond to Ft. Steilacoom Park following a report of a male sitting in the grass and yelling at trees. He has not committed a crime. When officers arrive they find the male yelling at trees, clearly hallucinating, in a mentally unstable state. He is unable to coherently respond to officers.

Medical aid and a mental health professional arrive, and everyone is in agreement that the male needs psychiatric evaluation and is unable to make that decision for himself. He screams “no” when officers try to convince him to go to the hospital.

Despite the clear need for help, this person has not committed a crime and is not an immediate threat to himself or anyone else. Officers must then walk away when we previously may have involuntarily committed the person for evaluation and treatment.

One might dismiss these as rare outliers, but our officers are faced with similar decisions routinely.

We must accept that there will be times when we will need to walk away from people in crisis, and we must accept that the way we respond to calls must be more methodical and may allow some suspects time to escape.

While this is admittedly going to be a difficult change in practice for us, this is the law, and we shall abide it. LPD will adapt, continue to respond to calls, and protect and serve this community.

Our top priority is the safety of this community, and Lakewood has our whole-hearted commitment to maintain that focus.