Inslee signs bills clarifying police reform laws in Washington

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee on Friday signed two bills fixing parts of a sweeping package of police reform measures that lawmakers passed in the wake of 2020s widespread racial justice protests.

One of the newly signed bills makes clear officers may use force to help detain or transport people in behavioral health crisis, while the other fixes an oversight that seemed to inadvertently prohibit police departments from possessing certain less-lethal weapons.

"When we take steps forward we learn and we improve," Inslee said. "I’m glad legislators have had an open mind to listen to what is happening in the field and respond."

The Legislature in 2021 approved the nation’s most ambitious package of police reform and accountability measures following the murder of George Floyd, a Black man, by Minneapolis police and the protests that ensued.

They included House Bill 1310, saying officers could use force only when they had probable cause to make an arrest or to prevent imminent injury, and that they were required to use appropriate de-escalation tactics if possible.

Departments across the state said those restrictions left unclear whether officers could use force in certain noncriminal situations, such as to detain people in crisis or transport them for behavioral health evaluation or treatment.

As a result, the law backfired on some of the state’s most vulnerable residents. Many police departments declined to use force to transport people in crisis, and it made it more difficult for mental health professionals to get them help.

Inslee on Friday signed House Bill 1735, which makes clear that the Legislature never intended to stop police from using force in community caretaking situations. It also says officers can use force to execute search warrants and to take minors into protective custody.

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Officers are still required to exercise reasonable care and appropriate de-escalation tactics before using force.

"This bill strikes a balance between necessary police reform and ensuring that officers can still help people in crisis," Inslee said.

The other measure fixes a mistake in another bill that was passed as part of the 2021 police reform package. That one restricted police departments from having certain military equipment, including firearms of greater than .50 caliber. That inadvertently banned some bean-bag shotguns or other less-lethal weapons.

The attorney general’s office issued an analysis last year saying that the measure clearly was not directed at less-lethal weapons and that departments could continue using them.

Nevertheless, some departments put the weapons away pending clarification by the Legislature.

Both bills passed the Senate unanimously after previously being passed by the House.

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