Supporters of police reform laws disagree with Auburn’s response

The new laws have been in effect for over a month now.

Auburn police aren’t responding to certain calls or making arrests for most misdemeanor crimes, citing police reform bills that don’t necessarily prevent either.

In a July 12 Auburn City Council study session, Auburn Police Chief Daniel O’Neil said the new police reform laws would have a big impact on the department’s ability to respond to calls.

During the meeting O’Neil said that due to the new laws and comments from the public, Auburn police officers would no longer be responding to most calls regarding mental illness, suspicious subjects or activity, noise complaints, RVs and “transient” camps and welfare checks. O’Neil said police would also not respond to trespassing calls if the person is already gone.

Policies of the new laws do not prevent police officers from responding to any type of calls. The attorney general’s office sent a memo clarifying this on Aug. 2.

“Bill 1310 does not prohibit peace officers from responding to community caretaking calls including mental health calls,” the memo said.

O’Neil said the memo did not impact department practices.

Jesse Johnson, sponsor of House Bill 1310, said it’s unprofessional for departments to simply not respond to calls.

“You have departments in different parts of the state who say ‘we disagree and we’re just not going to respond to a call,’” Johnson said. “I think that’s unprofessional, because it’s their job to protect and serve the community.”

O’Neil said officers not showing up to a given call doesn’t mean the department is refusing to provide services.

“We have never refused services to our community but rather, at times, we have utilized technology or resources to resolve community concerns that don’t necessarily require a response from a uniformed officer,” O’Neil said. “Additionally, we have been listening to demands of our community for non-police officers to handle issues that are not criminal in nature.

During the meeting O’Neil also said Auburn police officers should not make arrests for misdemeanor crimes because it is not equitable to only arrest people who chose not to resist. The exceptions to this rule include DUIs and domestic violence related offenses where an arrest is mandatory, O’Neil said.

“For most misdemeanor crimes we are not going to make a physical arrest, we are going to complete a report and issue a citation or refer that case to the prosecutor’s office,” O’Neil said.

O’Neil cited House Bill 1310 as the reason behind this decision.

However, House Bill 1310 does not prevent police officers from using force to arrest someone as long as there is probable cause that the person committed a crime, according to the bill.

“A peace officer may use physical force against a person when necessary to: Protect against criminal conduct where there is probable cause to make an arrest; effect an arrest; prevent an escape,” the law states.

The Washington State Criminal Justice Training Commission clarified that police are allowed to use force to make an arrest in a video by de-escalation tactics program manager Scott Wells.

“Under HB 1310, the legislature demands that as part of de-escalation officers “exhaust all available and appropriate de-escalation tactics prior to using physical force,” O’Neil said.

The law says to use these de-escalation tactics “when possible,” and it doesn’t prevent officers from using force after they’ve exhausted those de-escalation tactics. O’Neil said regardless of the Criminal Justice Training Commission’s opinion, prior case law suggests handcuffing someone is a use of force.

O’Neil also said that most people who are arrested for misdemeanor crimes only spend a night in jail and are released the next day.

Enoka Herat, police policy and immigration counsel at the ACLU of Washington, said several departments have spread misinformation about the new laws.

“There are a number of police departments across the state that spread a lot of misinformation,” Herat said. “For example blaming the laws for not showing up to certain incidents, even though there’s nothing in the law that prevented them from showing up.”

This mentality some departments have only hurts the public, Herat said.

“There were a number of times when departments blamed the laws for choices that they made and that’s really unfortunate,” Herat said. “I think that puts more people at risk, especially the most vulnerable among us.”

The law is very clearly intended to prevent police from harming and killing people when no crime has occurred, Herat said.

The actions of Auburn Police partly led to the bills being passed.

In 2019, Jesse Sarey was shot in the head by Auburn Police officer Jeffrey Nelson after he attempted to arrest Sarey for jaywalking, according to King County Prosecuting Attorney Dan Satterberg.

Nelson is currently awaiting trial on a second-degree murder charge for the shooting. Sarey’s foster mom, Elaine Simons, pushed for the new laws as a member of the Washington Coalition for Police Accountability, Herat said.

The reform laws are in response to Sarey’s killing by police and many others, Herat said.

“I think that [House Bill 1310] was done in response to the fact that so many people in Washington state have been killed when they weren’t even committing a crime, when officers were completely off the mark,” Herat said.

Contrary to some narratives, the new laws could actually help officers solve more cases, while keeping the public safe from unjust police violence, Herat said.

“It should have a positive impact on that [clearance rates]. It incentivizes officers to really take the time and investigate crimes that have been committed so they have the probable cause to make those arrests,” Herat said.

Auburn Police Department recently posted a press release regarding an armed carjacker who Auburn Police could not pursue due to the lack of probable cause. The post generated public outrage over the new laws.

However, in the following days police were able to recover the vehicle and arrest the suspect, without engaging in a dangerous pursuit.

In contrast to Herat’s stance, O’Neil said the new laws actually hurt the ability of police to investigate crimes.

“The changes to some of these laws at times have inhibited investigations and may provide less accountability for those who engage in criminal activity and victimize our community in the long run,” O’Neil said. “ There are several examples where community members engaged in criminal activity have been allowed to flee the police as a result of the new laws.”

O’Neil referenced the same carjacking as an example in which the new laws prevented Auburn officers from holding a criminal accountable. O’Neil did not acknowledge that the suspect was later arrested and put on electronic home monitoring.

Vehicle pursuits were the second leading cause of police-involved deaths since the passage of I-940, so restricting when an officer can engage in one enhances public safety, Herat said. In 2020, 12% of police pursuits ended in a collision, according to the Auburn Police Department.

In addition, there is a strong correlation between the signing of the new laws and a decrease in homicides by police.

In July 2019, there were five homicides by police and three in July 2020. In July of 2021 — the same month the new laws took effect — there were zero police homicides, according to data synthesized by Next Steps Washington.

O’Neil would not say whether he thinks the new laws will reduce the number of killings and uses of excessive force by Auburn police officers.