While neither party fully agrees, Washington’s House and Senate leaders have a desire to find middle ground with their counterparts on the state Supreme Court’s Blake Decision.
But, a suite of police reform bills passed in 2021, which saw adjustments the following year, may be here to stay, despite backlash from Republicans.
The Blake Decision struck down Washington state’s drug possession law, as it punished offenders whether or not they knew they had drugs on them. The decision was retroactive, meaning drug charges dating all the way back to the 1970s can now be re-evaluated, according to previous reporting by The Reflector’s sister paper, The Chronicle in Centralia.
The reform laws from 2021 include restrictions on when law enforcement can pursue fleeing vehicles and use excessive force.
On all levels of government, criticism of these moves abound in Southwest Washington, including from rural sheriffs and Republican party leaders like Sen. John Braun, R-Centralia. Former Congresswoman Jaime Herrera Beulter, R-Battle Ground, also heavily criticized both the Blake Decision and the pursuit laws in an interview with The Reflector recently.
On Jan. 5 in Olympia, Braun, the Senate Minority Leader, joined House Minority Leader J.T. Wilcox, R-Yelm, Senate Majority Leader Andy Billig, D-Spokane, and Speaker of the House Laurie Jinkins, D-Tacoma for a press briefing ahead of the legislative session, which began on Monday, Jan 9.
In both their opening remarks, Billig and Braun addressed public safety and specifically mentioned the hope that a bipartisan solution to the Blake Decision would be reached in the session. Braun also mentioned the pursuit law and a goal to reform it.
“There’s a consensus in the middle with legislators from both parties,” Billig told The Reflector. “A productive and effective drug possession law will include the criminal justice system, but really focus on a public health solution because drug possession is largely fueled by drug addiction, which is a health problem.”
As for the suite of reform bills, however, while Billig said he felt the Legislature gave law enforcement too much to change all at once, the rules have been implemented and most of them went “without controversy,” he said.
As an example of a rural sheriff who’d spoken out against them, a reporter prompted him with the statement that Lewis County Sheriff Rob Snaza had taken stances against the laws. In return, Billig asked: “Does he want to reinstitute chokeholds and have military equipment?”
He added in most of his conversations with law enforcement, officers felt most of the reform laws passed were well-accepted.
“If I had it to do over, I would stagger the implementation,” Billig said, later adding, “There were a few things we got wrong, which we came back and adjusted. And really, the only one that’s sort of still out there is the pursuit bill. … There’s a difference of opinion (on it).”
The Majority Leader, who hails from Spokane, said for urban police departments, the pursuit laws did not change much for procedure. What’s different, Billig said, is the public now knows the procedure and may be more willing to take advantage of it.
On the Blake Decision, Wilcox agreed with the Majority Leader that steps forward should include both health-focused treatment and the criminal justice system.
“We agree that the criminal justice system shouldn’t be the primary way to address addiction,” Wilcox said. “But it should be part of the solution.”
He added he’s among many Washingtonians with stories of a family member or loved one’s life being saved from substance abuse issues because they were incarcerated and went through a “good” drug program.
Wilcox added he thinks most of his Democratic counterparts seem to agree, but occasionally their “ideology is a trap. And they, I think, have to make some hard choices between ideology and effectiveness.”
As for police reform laws, Wilcox said there are pre-filed Republican-sponsored bills addressing what the party sees as issues with the suite passed, but it’s ultimately up to the Democratic majority as to whether those get a hearing.
Jinkins defended the pursuit laws in an interview with The Reflector, saying some data reflects that “deaths due to pursuits are down 80% in Washington state.” Research from the University of Washington reflects that statistic as well.
“I’ve met with my police chiefs. Here’s the biggest challenge in law enforcement right now: It’s workforce,” said the House Speaker.
In her opening remarks at the briefing, Jinkins said workforce issues throughout the state will be a priority for the Legislature this session. The issue, she said, is the state wasn’t prepared for mass retirement by the baby boomer generation.
She said she’d like to pursue “aggressive” work toward expanding law enforcement training opportunities.
On the Blake Decision, Jinkins echoed the other leaders. While she said the Legislature may not yet be in a decision-making place, the speaker said she thinks neither total decriminalization nor harsh felony charges are the answer.
“But, somewhere in the middle,” Jinkins said, adding, “We definitely need to continue to work on that.”