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Thursday, September 23, 2021

AG’s Office: Nothing In Police Reform Legislation Prevents Police From Responding To Community Caretaker Calls

Rep. Jesse Johnson, D-30

OLYMPIA – In response to concerns from some law enforcement agencies whether they have the authority to show up to community caretaking calls and calls involving a mental health crisis where no crime has been reported, Rep. Roger Goodman (D-Kirkland) and Rep. Jesse Johnson (D-Federal Way), Chair and Vice Chair of the House Public Safety Committee, sought guidance from the Attorney General’s Office. In a privileged communication Goodman and Johnson are now making pubic, Deputy Solicitor General Alicia O. Young and Assistant Attorney General Shelley Williams make clear that nothing in the new law prevents officers from responding to community caretaking calls or calls for assistance with a mental health crisis. Police can show up to assist Designated Crisis Responders and on other behavioral health calls.

HB 1310, the law which some agencies are citing as a reason they cannot attend to community caretaking functions, simply creates a standard of reasonable care for officers when using force against the public. That standard requires officers to exhaust all available de-escalation tactics, to consider the characteristics and conditions of the person to whom force is being applied, and to use the minimal amount of force necessary to bring someone into custody. Washington law recognizes that police serve as caretakers of the community and often have to respond to situations where no crime has been committed. HB 1310 specifically accounts for that by allowing the use of force “to protect against an imminent threat of bodily injury to a peace officer, another person, or the person against whom the force is being used.”

The vast majority of officers have been successfully assisting Designated Crisis Responders. Washington has been training de-escalation strategies and expanding investment in co-responder programs for years.  Unfortunately, while the majority of community caretaking calls are handled successfully and professionally, that has not always been the case. Unnecessary uses of force have disproportionately affected Black and brown communities and these incidents have eroded trust between law enforcement and the community. The goal of HB 1310 is to ensure equitable treatment of all communities by law enforcement where everyone can expect the same degree of reasonable care.

“Many, if not most police departments have confirmed their continued commitment to respond to community caretaking calls and to serve their communities,” said Goodman. “Law enforcement has always had the discretion to decide which calls to show up to. However, not responding at all to mental health crisis calls could jeopardize community safety, especially where police can and should employ a host of available de-escalation tactics to resolve situations peacefully. We hope that those agencies that are now pausing will reconsider in light of this AGO guidance.”

“We hope this robust guidance from the Attorney General’s Office is clarifying. We have been working with law enforcement agencies and organizations to ensure they have the clarity to do their job,” said Johnson. “I am submitting a set of key questions from the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs to the Attorney General’s Office for a formal advisory opinion. We look forward to continuing to collaborate closely with our partners in law enforcement to meet community expectations.”

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