Clark County state legislators have stopped short of agreeing with protesters who call for defunding police departments, though most agreed that reform is needed in the wake of officer-involved deaths both locally and nationwide.
“I don’t think defunding, however one describes it, is a smart thing to do,” said Sen. Lynda Wilson, a Republican who represents the 17th Legislative District in Olympia. The district encompasses east Vancouver and parts of rural central Clark County.
“Reducing funding, in turn reducing responses to crime and necessary calls, won’t help this situation,” Wilson added. “I really hate the thought of a domestic violence victim being severely beaten calling 911 and having only a social worker show up.”
Across the aisle, the region’s Democratic lawmakers are also avoiding calling for pulling funds from police departments outright, pointing instead to in-system reforms like banning chokeholds and requiring more de-escalation training.
“The answer lies somewhere in between,” said Sen. Annette Cleveland, a Democrat from the 49th District in west Vancouver.
Calls to defund the police are gaining popularity among protesters, who took to the streets demanding justice after recent deaths of Black people during confrontations with police — George Floyd died May 25 while in custody of the Minneapolis Police Department, and Breonna Taylor, a 26-year-old Louisville, Ky., woman, was shot dead in her home on March 13 when officers executed a no-knock warrant on her apartment.
Advocates for defunding say that funneling police resources into more specialized services — creating more support for social workers and mental health providers — would cut down on police violence within communities and impose some limits on what municipalities ought to expect their law enforcement officers to do.
In Minneapolis, where Floyd died, the city council already pledged to dismantle the traditional police department and create a new network for public safety.
‘Signal for action’
In Southwest Washington, meanwhile, politicians expressed regret over the death of Floyd, while also voicing respect for individual law enforcement officers in their districts.
“The murder of George Floyd is a stain on our history and is a signal for action on every level, from the dining room table to the White House, and every election that happens in between,” Rep. Monica Stonier, Democrat of the 49th, wrote in a statement posted to her Facebook page.
“Our law enforcement community has a long way to go, as has been on display (and) has gone undetected in the past. Let us not ignore the personal commitment many officers have made over the last several years, confronting the challenges to build broken relationships in our communities.”
Rep. Vicki Kraft, a Republican in the 17th who’s moved to the right on some issues since her 2018 re-election, said she believes that “protecting the public from harm is the top priority of any government.”
“We must be sure we don’t make it so difficult to be a police officer with lots of new requirements that good law enforcement officers quit or decide not to enter the profession altogether,” Kraft added.
Kraft said that she had a conversation with the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs last week. One potential reform, she continued, would see “a mental health professional accompany a police officer when called to respond where there’s likely a person with mental illness involved.” The potential cost of such a resource could pose a barrier, she added.
Cleveland said she’s interested in pursuing the “8 Can’t Wait” policing reforms laid out by Project Zero, a national advocacy group aimed at eliminating police violence. The eight-point plan would see police departments adopt choke hold bans, comprehensive reporting requirements, bans on shooting at moving vehicles and a use-of-force continuum.
In Vancouver, the police department does not train its officers to use chokeholds, though it does allow “vascular neck restraints,” a hold not intended to impede breathing.
VPD officers are also required to attend de-escalation training, both upon initial hiring and periodically.
The department was involved in four fatal shootings over the past 18 months. Three were ruled justified by the county prosecutor’s office; the fourth case is still pending.
“While I do believe that a large majority of our law enforcement officers are very faithful public servants … there also are very disturbing cases that highlight the excessive use of force,” Cleveland said.