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Legal memo says reform law doesn’t prevent police response

OLYMPIA, Wash. (AP) — A legal memo from the Washington Attorney General’s office says that the state’s new police use-of-force law does not prevent officers from responding to non-criminal calls like mental health and other community welfare calls.

Several Washington police agencies had signaled their intent to stop responding to calls for service involving non-criminal activities because of a measure that instructs officers to, among other things, exhaust de-escalation tactics and “(leave) the area if there is no threat of imminent harm and no crime has been committed.” The bill was one of several police reform bills that the Legislature passed this year, and which took effect July 25.

Northwest News Network reported Thursday that in the memo to state lawmakers this week, Deputy Solicitor General Alicia Young and Assistant Attorney General Shelley Williams wrote that the law “neither alters nor limits (the) authority” of police to respond to non-criminal calls for assistance.

The attorneys said that Washington courts and law recognize something called the “community caretaking doctrine” and cited a 2019 Washington Supreme Court opinion that called police officers “jacks of all trades” who “frequently engage in community caretaking functions that are unrelated to the detection and investigation of crime.”

The memo is not considered a formal legal opinion from the attorney general’s office, but was just a “carefully considered legal opinion” of the authors.

Rep. Jesse Johnson, the vice chair of the Public Safety committee and the prime sponsor of the measure in question, said he plans to request a formal opinion from the attorney general’s office, which could take several months.


“We hope this robust guidance from the Attorney General’s Office is clarifying,” Johnson said. “We have been working with law enforcement agencies and organizations to ensure they have the clarity to do their jobs.”

The Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs sent a letter to its members in July that said legislative action would be the best way to address “unintended consequences” of the new laws, but also said an opinion from the attorney general’s office would be helpful.

“What an officer is allowed to do while on scene is now substantially different, but we see nothing that prohibits or otherwise limits the ability for an officer to respond to any call for service,” wrote Steve Strachan, the association’s executive director.