Delayed capture of Pierce County murder suspect calls attention to new restrictions on police statewide
OLYMPIA – The capture and arrest of a Pierce County murder suspect last week calls attention to the urgent need for a special session to fix new laws restricting police and sheriff’s departments statewide, says Sen. Jim McCune, R-Graham.
Police were forced to call off the dogs after the July 28 shooting in a Puyallup-area parking lot because of new laws restricting police tactics and use of force. As a result, it took nearly two weeks for police to locate the suspect and charge him with first-degree murder.
“We’re lucky the police were able to track him down,” McCune said. “But the incident shows we can’t wait until next year to fix these laws. Everyone understood last session’s anti-police legislation was going to cause major problems. I just don’t think anyone knew how quickly our fears would come true.”
Just three days before the Pierce County murder, on July 25, new laws took effect that regulate police conduct, weapons, and tactics. The new legislation also creates a state bureaucracy to regulate local law enforcement agencies, allows Olympia to second-guess local investigations of police conduct, and make it easier to prosecute and sue individual officers for allegations of misconduct.
The new laws, favored by Democratic lawmakers, aimed to mollify urban activists who believe police routinely use excessive force and that rogue officers go unpunished.
In the Pierce County case, sheriff’s deputies quickly arrived at the crime scene in the Kohl’s parking lot in the South Hill shopping district. Eyewitnesses provided a description of the suspect, and police dispatched a deputy and a police dog to track him down by scent.
But the sheriff’s department was forced to call them back when they realized they could run afoul of the new law regarding force. Before unleashed police dogs or other forms of physical force can be used to detain a suspect, police must have “probable cause” to believe a suspect committed a crime. But no particular suspect had been identified, so probable cause could not be established.
Under the old rules, “reasonable suspicion,” a lower standard, would have been sufficient for police to detain a person of interest based on a description.
“I know this sounds like hairsplitting, but the new laws forced police to let the suspect flee,” McCune said. “This happened right here in one of the busiest shopping districts of Pierce County. And if that doesn’t bring it home, I don’t know what does.
“We heard from many police agencies that these new laws would cause serious problems for law enforcement, but our colleagues weren’t interested in their arguments. They were more interested in furthering a political cause. Their idea was that if cops aren’t going to jail, there must be something wrong. Even now we are hearing advocates for these bills say, ‘give them a chance to work.’
“Well, we’ve already seen in Pierce County that they don’t work. We need to fix these laws fast, before they get someone killed.”
The Pierce County incident isn’t the only case in which the new policing laws have created public safety risks. On Aug. 4, a Longview SWAT team cornered an armed suspect in a house and needed to force him outside. New restrictions on police tactics prevented them from using launchers to fire tear gas canisters through the windows. Instead, they were forced to throw rocks to break the window glass, so they could lob a tear gas canister inside. Police knew he had a knife. If the man had possessed a gun, the operation would have placed the officers within range of gunfire.
In a story published in the Tacoma News Tribune July 29, Pierce County law enforcement officials said the new laws will prevent officers from responding to calls unless there is clear reason to believe a crime is being committed. Among other things, they said the changes will prevent officers from responding to calls regarding persons suffering mental health episodes unless they are associated with a crime.
McCune is joining Republican lawmakers and legislative leaders in calling for a special session to rewrite the new laws. “We should start by restoring the reasonable suspicion standard, but we really need to reconsider all of this year’s anti-police legislation,” he said. “Olympia has just gotten an object lesson in unintended consequences, and I hope my colleagues are paying attention.”