*Adam Fortney, Snohomish County Sheriff
House Bill 1310 Use of Force
House Bill 1310 changed when an officer in Washington can use force. The current standard is called the “reasonable officer standard” and use of force was determined to be lawful if under the totality of the circumstances, it was objectively reasonable. Under the new law, a deputy sheriff in Washington can use force under only three affirmative circumstances: (1) to make an arrest; (2) to prevent escape (a legal term, not just someone running away); or (3) to protect against imminent threat of bodily injury to a person.
One of the biggest changes for public safety personnel will be our response to an individual having a mental health or behavioral health crisis. Deputy sheriffs can no longer use force, even minimal force, to detain a person in crisis for transportation to a hospital. The only instance a police officer may use force in this situation is if there is an imminent threat of bodily injury to a person. As a result, sheriff deputies will have to walk away from many crisis incidents far more often than in the past. This will also largely impact our ability to assist Fire/Aid and Designated Crisis Responders.
Another significant change in HB 1310 is with the new use of force law. The legislature has changed the threshold of when we can use force to “probable cause” instead of “reasonable suspicion.” For example, under the current law, if a man was to break into your house while you were inside, you confront him and he runs away, and you call 911 to provide a description of the suspect as “a white male, in his 30s, wearing a red shirt and black shorts, leaving on foot.” It has always been considered reasonable that if a law enforcement officer arrived to the area and saw a suspect matching this description, that we had the legal authority to stop him and if he ran, we were allowed to use reasonable force to chase him and detain him. This would be allowed under the current “reasonable suspicion” threshold. Under HB 1310, this is no longer allowed.
A deputy sheriff no longer has the authority to use force to apprehend the suspect in the above scenario. With the new threshold being “probable cause,” a deputy sheriff will have to have articulable facts, that are confirmed by a victim or witness, that a specific crime has occurred and the person we are seeking is the one responsible. That means we can no longer stop and detain a fleeing suspect matching a description who is running from the area of a crime that just occurred. We must first make contact with the reporting party or a witness, confirm the facts of the crime, develop probable cause and then we can go back and look for that individual. As you can imagine in the dynamic world of policing in 2021, most of the time it is nearly impossible to have all of those facts sorted out while responding to the initial 911 call, and this ultimately allows a suspect the ability to flee the area without being stopped. I want the community to know that this type of scenario is not a rarity in police work and the new legal standard of “probable cause” to use force in an investigative detention will have substantial impacts. This type of similar scenario occurs regularly in Snohomish County, and this new standard is the same for all types of crimes, including violent crimes.
As you can imagine, catching a fleeing criminal from the actual scene of the crime is much more advantageous when it comes to building a strong legal case for future prosecution, overall community safety, evidence recovery and justice for the victim. While the Sheriff’s Office will do our best to build cases after the fact, this requires many detective hours and is a much more difficult path than being able to catch a criminal in the progress of their crime.
As we adjust the ways in which we provide police services to honor the new laws passed by the legislature, I want to thank our community for being patient and I want to continue to reassure you that the Snohomish County Sheriff’s Office will continue to be there when you call.
It is an honor to serve the residents of Snohomish County!
Sheriff Adam Fortney