By Steven D. Strachan, Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs
The old saying “all politics are local” has taken on new meaning as lawmakers consider public policy reforms to law enforcement. Local control of law enforcement means your local police chief and sheriff are accountable to their communities.
Washington state’s law enforcement leaders agree that reforms are necessary, but one-size-fits-all solutions in the name of reform may create public safety problems and further diminish public trust in law enforcement. Change is necessary, but it needs to be focused, thoughtful and balanced.
The more than 260 law enforcement agencies across Washington are not all the same. Large city departments aren’t the same as smaller suburban or rural agencies. Laws don’t change from town to town, but what the community expects from their local law enforcement agency reflects the needs of each community.
There are dozens of reform proposals under debate by the state Legislature. Some focus on improving public safety, but others may lead to the opposite outcome. For example, a complete ban on the use of all K-9 dogs to apprehend or arrest a person may inadvertently increase the use of deadly force because it may be the only option left in a dangerous situation. Tracking dogs are a critical resource for law enforcement to safely locate serious offenders who flee and take them into custody. The use of non-lethal tactics should be encouraged, not curtailed.
Similarly, although citizens can provide valuable input, the investigation of possible serious misconduct or criminal acts by officers must also include persons familiar with criminal investigation techniques and policing experience.
The Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs (WASPC) represents county sheriffs and municipal police chiefs. In June 2020, we proposed a set of comprehensive law enforcement reforms focused on transparency and accountability, reduction of barriers to officer discipline and termination, and support for a fair and more equitable criminal justice system. We support a more robust wrap-around behavioral health system that truly works to keep people out of the criminal justice system in the first place. We need to stop making law enforcement the only solution and the only resource that will actually show up for people in crisis. It’s a major reason for some confrontations that are driving public concern.
Law enforcement leaders need better tools to reinforce a positive and accountable culture within their agencies. We need better tools for chiefs and sheriffs to terminate and discipline officers. We support decertification and arbitration reform, as well as more immediate revocation of peace officer licenses. We also support limiting certain tactics, and to standardize use of force centered on the sanctity of human life.
We agree with law enforcement reform goals, but the details should not inadvertently create unintended consequences that harm, rather than protect, the public. We must avoid solutions that result in officers having less active engagement with the community, decrease innovative programs for diverting people with behavioral health and addiction challenges away from the criminal justice system, and crush recruiting efforts to attract the diverse and innovative people we need in law enforcement.
If we focus only on police accountability and do not invest in long-term behavioral health and community support systems aimed at reducing known factors that lead to crime, our neighborhoods will be less safe. Such unintended negative results would lead to more cynicism and less trust between the public and law enforcement and will not bring our communities together to enhance public safety and well-being.
For years, we have publicly acknowledged that institutional bias exists in all aspects of society: criminal justice, education, housing, healthcare, finance and more. We work with policymakers and others to implement systemic improvements to better understand, reduce and control the biases and barriers that inhibit every person’s success.
Our elected leaders need to focus on reforms that increase public trust and safety while also supporting good policing. These cannot be mutually exclusive. Rather, they are directly tied to each other. Public safety requires the trust and support of the community, and our law enforcement officers need public support to do their important jobs. We must get this balance right and thoughtfully ensure that solutions will not make problems worse.
We hope the state Legislature will look for balance and implement solid, public safety-minded reforms that protect and support the men and women who put their lives on the line every day for the communities we are sworn to serve. We support changes that advance public safety and respect victims, who are often forgotten in the dialogue. We need to get this right. We look forward to continuing to listen, learn, and then act.
Steven D. Strachan is executive director of the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs (WASPC), which includes all 39 Sheriffs and more than 230 Police Chiefs across Washington. He previously served as a police chief and sheriff, in Kent, Bremerton, and King County.