Law enforcement officers across our nation have been subjected to intense scrutiny and criticism alleging the the widespread, reckless and irresponsible uses of force during encounters with citizens. While incidents occasionally occur in various places, it is unfair to attribute these isolated incidents to the professional officers who serve within Whatcom County.
We are fortunate to have a law enforcement culture within our community that reflects professionalism, compassion and competence. Officers do not desire to use deadly force and only exercise such force when necessary to protect the citizens they are sworn to protect and themselves. Deviations from these standards are not tolerated by officers or their agencies.
Training a model
The improper use of force by officers, including deadly force, is extremely rare in Washington State. Law enforcement practices and training in Washington are heralded as a model for other states to emulate.
Nonetheless, our Legislature responded to critics of law enforcement that referenced questionable instances of deadly force in other states and editorials that inaccurately portrayed facts, by creating the “Joint Legislative Task Force on the Use of Deadly Force in Community Policing.”
The task force was charged with reviewing laws, practices, training; alternatives to lethal force and recommend best practices to reduce violent interactions between law enforcement and members of the public. While law enforcement was represented on the task force, so were other individuals and groups with widely divergent perspectives.
Criminal culpability shields
A sharply divided task force ultimately issued recommendations that among other things, called for eliminating long-standing statutory protections that shield law enforcement from criminal culpability when acting reasonably, in good faith and without malice.
I have a grave responsibility to officers and their families for their safety. As sheriff, I ask our deputies to put their lives on the line to protect society and uphold the rule of law. They and other officers all too frequently respond to incidents that most citizens would shun. From approaching armed and dangerously mentally ill people; to intervening in volatile and potentially deadly domestic assaults; to pursuing and searching for assaultive felons; to handling disturbances within the deteriorating jail involving inmates armed with weapons fashioned by dismantling the failing infrastructure, the risks and dangers officers face are real and are driven home by recent incidents in Tacoma and Mount Vernon.
Unlike citizens, officers do not have the option to run away from violent threats that endanger our citizens. Rather, they must move toward the threat and make split-second decisions under difficult, dangerous and often terrifying circumstances. An error in judgment could be deadly for the officer or the citizens they are sworn to protect.
Trained to intervene
Deputies and other law enforcement officers are trained to defuse situations through crisis intervention and are provided an array of non-lethal weapons that are deployed under appropriate circumstances. I can cite instance after instance where intervention and non-lethal alternatives were used to safely resolve situations that had the potential to turn deadly. Other law enforcement agencies within the county maintain similar practices and regularly train together to help ensure sufficient resources are available at critical incidents.
Deputies perform these functions in a challenging environment. Washington State has the lowest ratio of officers to citizens of any state in our nation. The Sheriff’s Office has the lowest ratio of deputies to citizens of any law enforcement agency in Whatcom County. Within the jail, serious safety issues have been well known but yet remain unresolved.
In response to the divided task force report, several members of the Legislature filed bills that would eliminate the legal protections that are necessary for officers to respond appropriately and safely to serious threats. Law enforcement within Whatcom County has the backs of our citizens. Citizens should support professional and effective law enforcement and laws that make their jobs safer.
Despite the good work of law enforcement, much more should be done to reduce violent and deadly encounters between officers and citizens.
The Legislature should start by “fixing” the broken mental health system. Making mental health treatment available before situations escalate would reduce instances of violence perpetrated on citizens and officers. Ensuring that dangerously mentally ill people are humanely detained within the mental health system until they can be effectively released to community treatment would also reduce violence.
At the local level, focus should be directed on ensuring adequate staffing exists for appropriate responses to dangerous situations; that officers continue to receive the training needed to maintain their competence; that compensation systems are adequate to attract and retain the best officers available; and that deputies not work within a jail facility that by its very nature and condition, creates unreasonable risks of harm.
Bill Elfo is the elected sheriff of Whatcom County.