Port Orchard officials ask legislators to fix police reform laws

Police chief and mayor write that laws are handcuffing officers with vague ‘use of force’ rules

By Mike De Felice

Kitsap Daily News

PORT ORCHARD – Port Orchard’s mayor and police chief joined forces this month to lobby state lawmakers to remedy what they see as negative impacts associated with some police reform legislation passed last year.

New bills now being considered in Olympia – House bills 1726 and 1735 – attempt to clarify when police may use force to detain criminal suspects. The city leaders feel the proposed legislation is a step in the right direction but also believe the bills do not go far enough to promote public safety.

“The legislation only provides for brief, investigative detentions for reasonable suspicion of a violent act,” Police Chief Matt Brown and Mayor Rob Putaansuu stated in a letter to lawmakers.

“While this is an important step, these proposed changes do not permit officers to conduct a brief, investigative detention for reasonable suspicion of any other criminal act such as a property crime.”

The officials’ letter provided an example of how they believe recent police reform legislation has, in effect, tied the hands of officers in Port Orchard.

At a reported burglary of a local business, officers observed two suspects walking out of the rear door. When told to stop, both individuals fled on foot.

“Our officers were unable to conduct an investigative detention because they only had reasonable suspicion a burglary had occurred,” the city leaders wrote.

The mayor and police chief asked lawmakers to clarify guidelines on how officers may use reasonable physical force to prevent a person from fleeing lawful detention.

“This clarity must include an officer’s ability to detain those suspected of non-violent acts,” they wrote. “There are many other circumstances where officers must use force in a detention and act in the interests of public safety.”

In addition to asking state lawmakers to extend lawful detentions to include those for non-violent crimes, the city officials stressed the need for lawmakers to define the term “physical force.”

Chief Brown told the Independent that his request to those in Olympia is, “Please define what ‘use of force’ means. Is placing handcuffs on someone ‘force’? Right now, each police agency has to consult with its own legal counsel to determine what ‘use of force’ means. That leads to different interpretations, even within law enforcement agencies within Kitsap County.

“We need a definition so police agencies around the state are on the same page. Consistency is important,” Brown said.

Police reforms were passed in Olympia last year against the backdrop of a series of high-profile police misconduct cases that included the George Floyd homicide case in Minneapolis. That case involved an officer putting his knee on Floyd’s neck for more than nine minutes, an act that ultimately killed him. In April, the officer was convicted by a jury of Floyd’s murder.

Since those state police reforms were enacted, the city of Port Orchard experienced a spike in crime largely involving property crimes, officials told legislators.

“On average, we have seen two to four vehicle thefts per day. In a community of 16,000, this is staggering,” the two officials wrote.

An article on increased police calls in Port Orchard was published in the Independent on Dec. 6, 2021. Brown indicated that between 2019 and 2021, motor vehicle thefts soared nearly 128%. Shoplifting calls went up 19% and property destruction reports increased by 43%. Meanwhile, burglaries increased by 8%.

Some non-property crimes were also reported to be on the rise, with misdemeanor assaults jumping 47% and violations of no-contact orders increasing 18%. Brown is cautiously optimistic new laws will pass this legislative session that will enable his officers to do their jobs and promote public safety.

“It’s still too early to tell, but we are hopeful we will see legislation come back to the center,” he said.

Police Chief Matt Brown
Mayor Rob Putaansuu