Starting Sunday, Yakima county sheriff’s deputies and local police are going to change how they operate.
There will be some calls for assistance with troubled children or people with mental-health issues that police will not respond to. In other cases, they might respond but leave without getting involved.
Officers will also cut back on high-speed chases, only pursuing if they can clearly demonstrate the person may have committed a crime or is suspected of driving under the influence.
Yakima County Sheriff Bob Udell, Yakima police Chief Matt Murray and Union Gap police Chief Greg Cobb said their agencies, along with others, are trying to abide by new police reform laws the Legislature passed this year and which go into effect Sunday. While all three said they believe the reform measures have flaws, they also said they must follow them or risk having officers lose their certifications.
“We don’t want chaos in our city,” Murray said Tuesday. “We want public safety.”
But they also hope that the Legislature will revisit the issue in its next session and address what they see as unintended consequences.
Their concerns are shared by police chiefs throughout the Valley, many of whom signed on to a news release outlining how the new laws will restrict what police can do in various situations.
During this year’s legislative session, lawmakers passed several bills dealing with police tactics and operations in the wake of protests around the country over police brutality following the murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer.
One of the bills, House Bill 1310, requires officers to try to de-escalate a situation before using force, and then to only use as much force as is needed to resolve the situation.
Another bill, House Bill 1054, bars police from using neck restraints, no-knock search warrants, military-grade weapons and armored vehicles, as well as limits when and why police can engage in a high-speed pursuit with a suspect.
“I think I understand why a lot of these laws were enacted,” Udell said. “Suspects are unfairly injured or killed by the police. There is no doubt it happens. Cops are humans, too. They make mistakes.”
But he said the laws will have consequences that will affect police officers’ ability to promote public safety.
For example, under the current rules, a deputy can pursue a vehicle that matches the description of one that was involved in a robbery. But under HB1054, the deputy would be required to demonstrate that the suspect vehicle was more likely than not to be involved in the robbery, which he said is a much stricter standard.
While Udell said the sheriff’s office has cut back on high-speed pursuits on its own, he said the new law goes to the point of defying common sense.
The physical-force restrictions will visibly affect how police do their jobs, Udell and Murray said.
While many people may think of stun guns, batons and wrestling someone to the ground as physical force, Udell said merely grabbing someone by the arm to take them to a patrol car constitutes a use of force, and a deputy or police officer could lose his or her certification if that act were found to violate the law.
The law requires police to exhaust all other avenues to de-escalate a situation before resorting to physical force, and then only when the person is breaking the law.
What that means, Udell and Murray said, is that police would not be able to remove a runaway child or a mentally ill person who is refusing to come with them to get help. While Udell said police and designated crisis responders may try to coax such people into coming with them without resorting to force, he said the law will leave them no option but to leave unless the person’s conduct becomes criminal.
That, he said, could frustrate family members trying to get help for a mentally ill relative or runaway.
Union Gap’s Chief Greg Cobb said a police officer would not be able to respond to a drug overdose, as mere drug possession is no longer a crime, even though officers have saved people’s lives by administering Narcan to reverse the overdose before paramedics arrived.
Udell also said a restriction on certain military-grade weapons could also deprive officers of less-lethal options.
HB1054 bars the use of military-surplus weapons that are .50-caliber or greater. While it appeared the law was referring to heavy-duty machine guns or sniper rifles, Udell said Yakima County Prosecuting Attorney Joe Brusic warned him it would also apply to the 12-gauge shotguns the sheriff’s office uses to fire less-lethal projectiles, such as bean-bag rounds and rubber bullets.
The shotgun barrels are .72 caliber in barrel diameter, which Brusic told Udell pushes them into the forbidden category.
Murray, who said his command staff has met with city attorneys, did not come to that same conclusion.
Both men also said the agencies in the Valley are not engaging in a “rulebook slowdown,” a tactic used in labor disputes where police officers follow policies to the letter even if it defies common sense.
“We don’t get to use a common-sense threshold to determine what needs to be done,” Murray said. “We have to follow the law. Every community is having this same exact conversation.”