Appropriate use of force for law enforcement debated

By Juan Morfin

WNPA News Group

The amount of force a police officer uses must be “proportional and reasonable,” a bill approved recently by the State Senate says.

The bill also specifies officers will also be allowed to engage in vehicular pursuits as long as there is “reasonable suspicion” when making a traffic stop.

The Senate voted 31-18 on Senate Bill 5919 on Feb. 9 with a handful of Republicans joining the majority Democrats. The bill cleans up language adopted last year on the use of force that many in the law enforcement community said was confusing and contradictory.

“The Sheriff’s Office … believes Senate Bill 5919 strikes the right balance of correcting mistakes and over-reactions while preserving the positive, reforming intention of last year’s laws,” said a statement from the Kittitas County Sheriff’s Office.

The bill also says an officer can use physical force to:

• protect against criminal conduct where there is probable cause to make an arrest;

• make an investigative detention;

• protect against an imminent threat of bodily injury to the peace officer, another person or the person against whom force is being used.

In a public hearing, Lakewood Mayor Jason Whalen said last year’s legislation required police to have “probable cause” to stop a vehicle. That’s a higher standard than “reasonable suspicion,” and sometimes makes it “difficult, if not, impossible” to stop a vehicle, he said.

In this year’s bill, before using physical force, a police officer would have to use all available and appropriate de-escalation tactics and, when safe and feasible, use less lethal alternatives prior to using any physical force.

Less lethal alternatives include, but are not limited to, verbal warnings, a taser, pepper spray, batons, and beanbag rounds.

Renton Mayor Armondo Pavone said the current law causes his officers to be hesitant instead of helpful and doubtful instead of decisive. He urged the committee to pass the bill.

Sonia Joseph, of the Washington Coalition for Police Accountability, testified against the bill saying the new language allows for more racial profiling, and she recounted how her son was killed by police in 2017.

“He was a young person of color who had expired tabs and was unarmed and killed,” she said. “Allowing the use of physical force based on investigatory stops, which include traffic stops based on infractions like expired tabs, opens the law to racial profiling.”

Carmen Rivera, a Criminal Justice educator at Seattle University, said last year’s legislation on use of force encouraged officers to use less lethal forms of force. More time is necessary to judge the impact of the law, she said.