Handcuffing police response creating a local mental health crisis

Mental health officials in Washington state are concerned about a mental health crisis that has grown steadily during the COVID-19 pandemic and is now getting worse due to a new state law aimed at limiting the use of force by law enforcement. Since HB 1310 went into effect on July 25, the case backlog in King County has doubled as many agencies no longer send officers on mental health calls unless a crime has been committed.

Snohomish County Sheriff Adam Fortney says the Police Reform Act makes it risky for his deputies even when a judge signs a person’s involuntary commitment order. “There comes a point when a deputy mayor has to make a decision in a split second,” says Fortney, “we can no longer use force unless there is a probable cause for someone to be arrested. There is no person under arrest with someone in the same mental state.” A health crisis.”

Ken Westphal, Police Officer Lacey, center, an instructor with the Washington State Criminal Justice Training Commission, works with students during an exercise on July 14, 2021 in Buren, Washington.
(AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)

Frank Crouch, King County’s involuntary compliance coordinator, says designated crisis responders typically have about 60 cases pending. But the backlog of cases now amounts to nearly 140. This means that fewer people are evaluated by behavior professionals when family members communicate concerns. It has also led to a decrease in involuntary obligations for those in acute mental crisis who may pose a danger to themselves or others.

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HB 1310 was part of comprehensive police reform laws passed by the Washington state legislature in 2021 in response to Black Lives Matter protests. The Democratic-controlled government did not specify the force, but indicated that officers should consider leaving the scene “if there is no threat of imminent harm and no crime has been committed, has been committed or is about to be committed.”

State Representative Roger Goodman, a Democrat, is one of the principal architects of police reform laws. “The legislature has not prevented the police from responding to any calls, mental health crises, or any other type of calls, and the public expects the police to respond to the calls,” Goodman says.

But Goodman admits there is confusion surrounding the use of force when it comes to people who need mental health treatment. He pledged that the Legislative Council will clarify the bills in the next session, which begins in January. “There may be some marginal adjustments to the policy to make sure the police can do their jobs, but we don’t have unnecessary injuries and deaths and the use of force,” Goodman said. “I think we can thread that needle.”

Seattle police officers consult after participating in a public appeal at Hing Hay Park in the city's international Chinatown on March 18, 2021.

Seattle police officers consult after participating in a public appeal at Hing Hay Park in the city’s international Chinatown on March 18, 2021.
((AP Photo/Ted S. Warren, File))

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Meanwhile, avoidable tragedies and semi-tragedies occurred. One police department has changed its policy on the topics of suicide, so officers will no longer be dispatched if the person is “at their place of residence and is not a threat to any other person.” Nine hours after a girlfriend called 911 to threaten suicide, a man committed suicide in his apartment. The police did not send an officer for the initial request for help.

In Snohomish County, deputies responded to a parent’s plea about his son’s hearing and his emotion. When they got home, the teenager walked away. Sheriff Fortney defends the deputy’s decision to let him walk. “We have to weigh risk versus reward, the way they wrote this legislation, the risk now far outweighs the reward for a law enforcement officer to get involved with someone who has a mental health crisis,” Fortney said.

Police inspect the scene of a shooting on Third Avenue and Pine Street on January 22, 2020, in Seattle, Washington.

Police inspect the scene of a shooting on Third Avenue and Pine Street on January 22, 2020, in Seattle, Washington.
(Karen Dossey/Getty Images)

That teenager walked through the woods to another house, which he entered through an open front door. Eric Bellebywood was at home with his children and was stunned to see the now-naked teenager in his living room. He grabbed the kitchen knife and ordered the young man to get on his knees. Fortunately, the teenager complied and no one was hurt.

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Bellabode says the law on the use of force needs to change. “What’s the point of calling the police if they can’t act?” Billapod asks.

Some police reform activists don’t blame the law, they blame the police. Davita Briscoe, whose brother was shot and killed by Seattle police, says cops are taking advantage of a law they don’t like.

“It doesn’t help, to protest or say we won’t show at all,” Briscoe said. “It doesn’t help mend the relationship with those communities, and it doesn’t help build trust.”

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