Recent crime wave generates concern over police efficacy
At 4:00 a.m. on Aug. 11, Bryan Gadeken awoke to the sound of rustling outside of his open bedroom window. For a second, Gadeken, 64, froze and watched as four silhouettes rifled through his two cars parked on his driveway.
“Since the window was open, I kinda lit ‘em up a little bit, yelling at ‘em as loud as I could and they all scrambled,” said Gadeken.
The police arrived 15 minutes later, responding to this and a string of car break-ins at several houses in the Pacific Estates neighborhood that night. Although Gadeken’s stolen papers and belongings were recovered along with those of at least two other victims, the criminals skated free.
To the consternation of many residents, neither the crime nor the burglars’ escape was out of the ordinary for Sammamish. In August, Sammamish suffered a string of property thefts, following a larger trend of increasing crime over the COVID-19 pandemic.
Sammamish Police are attributing their recently lackluster crime fighting to police reform legislation from Olympia.
According to the FBI, Sammamish property crimes have been on the rise since 2018. As of Aug. 31, the King County Sheriff’s Office reported 313 documented property crimes in Sammamish, with more than 100 incidents reported in January alone. This rise culminated in August’s property crime wave, which impelled residents to use social media to document all sorts of crimes, from car prowls to identity theft. Some residents expressed concern about police inefficacy, stating that police were failing to capture suspects who should have been easy targets.
In a press conference held on Aug. 3, Sammamish Police Chief Dan Pingrey attributed law enforcement reticence to state legislation that he claimed was obstructing his department from policing effectively.
“We’re tiptoeing a little bit, because we don’t want to make mistakes,” said Pingrey.
State legislatures across the nation have been passing massive police reform packages following the year of national conversation on police accountability sparked by the murder of George Floyd in 2020. In April and May, Governor Jay Inslee signed 13 bills covering everything from police equipment to decertification practices. These laws went into effect across the state on July 25.
“We wanted to be a part of these legislative changes that were being made in Washington state,” said Pingrey. “Unfortunately, that didn’t happen very well or very often throughout this process.”
Police departments and unions across the state are consulting legal advisors who are interpreting the new legislation very conservatively to avoid liability.
For example, HB 1054 and HB 1310 regulate the use of force, banned neck restraints, and restricted tear gas usage. The laws also ban vehicular pursuits with limited exceptions for DUIs and felonies, which Pingrey cited as explanation for situations like Gadeken’s, where police are directed not to pursue the burglars in order to comply with state law.
The chief expressed concern with portions of HB 1054 that ban the use of military weapons. According to Pingrey, the bill’s definition includes all of the department’s less lethal shotguns and blunt-nose ammunition, decreasing alternatives to lethal force.
However, the laws also require officers to minimize the use of physical force, emphasizing de-escalation tactics and raising the bar of justification for forceful detainments. Sammamish Police interpret this to mean that police cannot use force to put people on gurneys and that officers must leave scenes of mental health or substance abuse crises if victims want them to.
“That’s gonna be difficult, I believe, for people to see, especially when someone really appears to be struggling,” said Pingrey.
For Sammamish Police, the stakes of complying with new legislation are heightened by SB 5051, which almost doubled grounds for officer decertification, in addition to expanding the power to request decertification to the general public, instead of only to fellow officers.
The need for clarification is acknowledged by both lawmakers and law enforcement. Rep. Roger Goodman represents the 45th district, which encompasses the northern half of Sammamish. Goodman sponsored several of the police reform bills.
“This was a remarkably comprehensive package,” said Goodman. “With any big reform like that comes the need for refinement and clarification.”
According to Goodman, Washingtonians can expect clarifications to the legislation as soon as January. Specifically, he said that lawmakers “never intended to interrupt the existing protocol for mental health crises” and that the ban on less lethal ammunition like foam bullets was unintentional and “overlooked by everybody at the table.”
Goodman also indicated that police would see clarifications to HB 1223, which mandates that almost all custodial interrogations be electronically recorded. Some legislators interpret this to entail audio coverage, while police agencies have interpreted the law to require body cameras. Regardless, the law currently has no built-in funding, and police departments have claimed that data storage and IT costs would make the measure expensive to implement.
Goodman explained that the intention of the bills was to reduce the use of force, focus on de-escalation, and codify equitable treatment of communities. He said that the reforms were necessary “to hold police accountable for misconduct” and to increase transparency.
“This was not anti-police,” said Goodman. “This was pro-police and pro-police reform.”
The package has been in the cogs of the state legislature since 2014, when Michael Brown was killed by police in Ferguson, Missouri. Although the voting record renders the package starkly partisan on paper, Goodman said that the state legislature’s seven years of work on police reform have strengthened “teamwork and friendship and working relationships” between Democrats and Republicans.
“The votes may have been along party lines, but the way in which we enacted the law was as collegial as possible, with high stakes issues on the line,” said Goodman.
Whatever the future may hold for Sammamish law enforcement, for the time being, residents will see more officers responding to each incident as the department attempts to respond in numbers instead of force. Pingrey said that his department is “going to slow things down” and be “very careful about using force in any way” to reduce anxiety and comply with state guidelines.
The state police reform package also includes the following bills:
- SB 5066: which clarifies and bolsters the duty of law enforcement to report and intervene in incidents where another member of law enforcement violates the law;
- SB 5163: which revises the placement and treatment of conditionally released sexually violent predators;
- SB 5259: which creates a statewide data collection system with information like incident reports to inform future legislation;
- SB 5353: which establishes a Department of Commerce program to fund community outreach with law enforcement;
- SB 5119: which requires the Department of Corrections and local jails to investigate unexpected deaths in their facilities;
- HB 1001: which establishes a grant program to promote departments that reflect the demographics of their community;
- HB 1089: which establishes law enforcement compliance audits by the State Auditor at the request of the Criminal Justice Training Commission and following all deadly force investigations;
- HB 1267: which establishes the Office of Independent Investigations to investigate serious use of force incidents and criminal acts by law enforcement, instead of uninvolved law enforcement agencies;
- SB 5263: which requires the highest standard of proof for law enforcement to use the defense that someone was committing a felony if they are sued for personal injury damages or wrongful death. This amendment effectively requires wrongful death suits against law enforcement to go to trial before a jury, unless law enforcement offers an alternative applicable defense.
- HB 1140: which mandates access to attorneys for juvenile suspects.