Legislative Democrats’ attempt at police reform puts communities at risk

Special to The Seattle Times

By Perry Dozier

We all want transparency and accountability from those in positions of authority. I recognize the frustration that led to 2020’s protests and cries for police reform. Community members are right to expect justice and fairness, yet the police reform bills passed during the 2021 legislative session are unlikely to deliver that. Unfortunately, they will instead tie the hands of our men and women in uniform in a way that may have very negative consequences for public safety and officer safety.

Spearheaded by majority Democrats, new laws that took effect July 25 will prohibit police tactics and equipment used to take control of violent situations, and pursue dangerous criminals. They will reduce law enforcement’s ability to make contact with suspects and known criminals, and limit certain communication with suspects and witnesses during investigations. One will even require an officer to be decertified in cases where a reprimand or mentorship used to be the appropriate reaction. Together, the laws created by House Bill 1054, House Bill 1310 and Senate Bill 5051 make policing more difficult while also raising the professional stakes for officers.

I could have supported responsible reforms, but not this potent policy cocktail that stands to increase crime, decrease public safety and ensure that no one will want to wear a police uniform in the near future.

The timing couldn’t be worse. According to the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs, murders in our state have increased overall 66.9% since 2016. Additionally, Washington is ranked last out of the 50 states and District of Columbia for the number of officers per capita. Officer assaults have increased 67% since 2016, clearly indicating the job of police officer is becoming more dangerous. This could explain why more officers left the Seattle Police Department in 2020 than in any other year since 2012. Just like other areas of public policy, when overregulation makes it nearly impossible to do a job, people tend to avoid and leave that profession.

Then there’s the state Supreme Court decision in the case of State v. Blake. During the 2021 legislative session, the court threw out Washington’s felony drug-possession law and essentially made possession of narcotics legal. Instead of making a simple one-word fix and reinstating the law, majority Democrats rammed through legislation in the final days of the 2021 session that addressed the Supreme Court’s concerns but also took advantage of the crisis. What used to be a felony is now reduced to a misdemeanor that is near-impossible to prosecute.

Often, being arrested for possession offers the first — and sometimes only — opportunity to engage someone with substance-use disorder, through treatment programs via drug court. Without an enforceable drug-possession statute, many will go without the treatment that might save their lives or keep them from harming others. Now, many of those serving time for drug possession in the past will be released, and individuals carrying drugs will stay on the street — further endangering our cities and communities.

As lawmakers, we must provide our officers with the tools and resources they need to succeed while also holding them to a clear professional standard. To be candid, majority Democrats saw and took an opportunity to force legislation through, during a virtual session, against the advice of officers, prosecutors and the public-safety community.

The radical changes served their political agenda, but do they serve the citizens of our state? Washington deserves better; our state Legislature needs to focus on real reforms that will restore and build trust between police officers and the communities they serve, without putting public safety at more risk. With the Democrats in control, don’t count on it.

Perry Dozier is a state senator, R-Waitsburg, who serves on the Senate Human Services, Reentry and Rehabilitation Committee.