by Ron Krebs
San Juan County Sheriff
As of 12:01 a.m. on July 26, the State of Washington enacted a group of laws aimed at “police reform”. These laws are aimed at enhancing accountability, training, and transparency among law enforcement, however, what these new laws will do is significantly affect our ability to detect and prevent crime and apprehend those who have committed criminal acts. While we embrace change and are always working towards providing better community-oriented service, these laws will change the way law enforcement looks statewide as well as in San Juan County.
In 1968 the Supreme Court ruled on Terry vs. Ohio, a landmark case that allows law enforcement to temporarily detain a person where they have “reasonable suspicion” to believe a crime has been, is being, or is about to be committed. This is what is known as a Terry stop. Terry stops allow us to detain an individual suspected in a crime to investigate and determine if a crime has been committed. It is the number one tool law enforcement uses day to day in conducting criminal investigations. As of now, the new Washington State laws have overridden that decision with House Bill 1310 which restricts law enforcement from using any degree of force unless probable cause exists to make an arrest. Terry vs. Ohio has always required “reasonable suspicion” to detain a person, a lesser degree than “probable cause” which is what is needed to make an arrest. The inability to detain the prime suspect or suspects will make it difficult to effectively investigate a crime. This will undoubtedly allow victims to continue to be victimized and perpetrators to not be held accountable.
The same use of force standard will also prevent us from dealing with people in mental crisis. The Sheriff’s Office responds to a tremendous number of mental health calls. The majority of the calls results in the person being taken into custody and transported to the hospital where they can get the crisis response help they desperately need. Law enforcement officers now must “leave the area” if no imminent threat or criminal act exists. This is done to take law enforcement out of the equation and transfer the crisis response to the mental health crisis professionals. What is missing is the mental health agencies are severely understaffed and in no way equipped or capable of dealing with a violent individual. What this means for our community is where we would normally take the person in crisis into custody and take them to the hospital, we may now have to leave them in their home with the very same people who called us for help in the first place. This law goes so far as to restrict law enforcement from helping Fire and EMS with a patient who is resisting being restrained in the ambulance.
Recently we saw the courts rule on Blake vs Washington which changed our drug laws completely. San Juan County courts have taken a therapeutic approach to drugs, something we at the Sheriff’s Office support. We have an excellent drug court with some very good successes. Senate Bill 5476 has taken possession of drugs, ANY amount, and made it a simple misdemeanor. It also directs us to not file charges on them the first two times a person caught with drugs, but instead to release them with an agreement to voluntary participation of an outpatient treatment program. There is no incentive to get help. Furthermore, there is no database to show who has been stopped and when. A person could get caught with drugs in San Juan County, Whatcom County, Skagit County, Bellingham and Anacortes and would never get into the treatment system like they would have previously.
There are laws pertaining to interviewing and interrogations, police pursuits, and many others that went into effect as well as those I have detailed above are the ones that will likely affect San Juan County the most.
Only time will tell how all the new laws will look and how they will affect our communities. As we move forward and develop new ways to providing law enforcement services under these new guidelines, know that we at the Sheriff’s Office will still be accountable to the communities and the citizens we serve.
Things will be more challenging, and we will do everything we can to continue to provide the best service and protect those who live, work, and visit here, even if it looks different than what we are all used to.