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Spokane Police Chief urges legislators to clarify police reform laws

Spokane Police Chief Craig Meidl speaks to reporters Thursday.
Rebecca White/SPR
Spokane Police Chief Craig Meidl speaks to reporters Thursday.

Spokane’s police chief is urging legislators to clarify several police reform laws that went into effect last summer. He, and many other law enforcement leaders across the state, argue the new measures have made crime worse by making it harder to detain people suspected of breaking the law.

After a summer of historic protests against racial injustice and inequities in the criminal justice system, Washington legislators responded with a slate of new laws, placing limits on when and how police officers can use force, or detain people they suspect may have been involved in a crime.

In a press conference Thursday, Spokane Police Chief Craig Meidl said police need clarity on whether they can detain a person on the reasonable suspicion they may have committed a crime, a standard they previously used, or if they are required to meet a higher standard, probable cause.

“When can an officer detain somebody?” Meidl said. “That is really the bread and butter of proactive law enforcement, but also a tool that officers need to keep a community safe."

Meidl, as well as other law enforcement leaders in the state, have pinned recent spikes in crime over the last year on the new laws. Thursday, Meidl said the laws had limited officers ability to respond to some calls and crisis’s, but said the increase could also be related to other factors, such as mental health impacts of the pandemic.

In January, the Washington Attorney General’s office published an opinion on the reform laws, noting the confusion around probable cause, and pointing out there is no current legal definition of physical force.

Meidl says a bipartisan bill, SB 5919, could address some of his concerns. The bill would allow officers to pursue suspects who they believe are a public safety risk and creates a legal definition for physical force.

That bill, and other legislation that would amend police reform laws that went into effect in 2021, are also facing protests. Activists recently protested the bills in front of the Spokane County Courthouse, and have called law enforcement claims that they cannot arrest people who commit crimes misinformation.

SB 5919 has already passed the Washington State Senate, with all three of the Spokane region’s senators voting for it. It is now being considered in committee in the House.

Rebecca White is a 2018 graduate of Edward R Murrow College of Communication at Washington State University. She's been a reporter at Spokane Public Radio since February 2021. She got her start interning at her hometown paper The Dayton Chronicle and previously covered county government at The Spokesman-Review.