Rantz: SeaTac arson suspect faced involuntary commitment hours earlier, fear of new law may have played role

Jul 13, 2021, 9:56 PM | Updated: Jul 14, 2021, 5:42 am
SeaTac, fire...
A fire races through a SeaTac apartment building. (KIRO 7 TV)

Fear over a new police accountability law hastily passed by progressive Democrats to end supposed police brutality and discriminatory policing may have stopped King County Sheriff’s deputies from involuntarily committing a SeaTac man experiencing a mental health crisis.

Hours later, that same man allegedly burned down an apartment complex, displacing 80 residents and seriously injuring four, including an infant.

Police allege Michael Scott Rengstorff committed arson at a 48-unit building at the Hanover Apartments in SeaTac. But hours earlier, deputies were dispatched to the same apartment building to assist on a mental health civil commitment order, multiple law enforcement sources confirmed to the Jason Rantz Show on KTTH.

Deputies tried to place Rengstorff on an involuntary commitment due to what they believed was a mental health crisis. They weren’t able to. Now, some believe fear of the new law may have deputies second-guessing their decisions.

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New WA law kept dangerous suspect on the streets

Rengstorff was accused of threatening the lives of family members in the first week of July, according to a law enforcement source.

At the time, deputies responded without incident to take him to a mental health evaluation at St. Anne Hospital in Burien. But he was released before a designated mental health provider was able to obtain a civil commitment order.

Days later, on July 10, deputies were again called to his residence. This time, they assisted a crisis response team attempting to place Rengstorff on a non-emergent initial petition involuntary treatment order. They wanted to bring him back in for mental health treatment. Rengstorff would not cooperate.

Later that evening, police allege Rengstorff entered his apartment’s stairwell. According to an incident report, “video surveillance shows Rengstorff leaving the stairwell just prior to the smoke being seen and 911 calls being made.”

Rengstorff was the only person seen exiting that stairwell before smoke and then flames engulfed the building. The suspect remains in jail on $200,000 bail pending an imminent charging decision by the King County Prosecutor’s Office.

How the new law works

Thanks to the newly-signed HB 1310, police can only use force under limited circumstances. Though the law isn’t in effect until July 22, some agencies across the state have already begun to implement it. For officers, many are already worried about its impact.

Before the law passed, deputies could physically restrain people experiencing a mental health crisis as a way to transport them to involuntary commitment.

Deputies can now only use force under a very stringent set of criteria: to make an arrest when probable cause exists; to prevent an escape from custody or a detention facility; or protect against an imminent threat by the suspect to themselves or others.

In Rengstorff’s situation, deputies believed it was a clear mental health crisis in need of intervention, and they were assisting on a civil commitment order. But there was no probable cause to make an arrest because he didn’t commit a crime and he didn’t pose an “imminent threat.”

Instead, the suspect returned to his apartment, locking the police out. Under the state’s civil commitment law, deputies do not have the authority for forced entry into the residence without a search warrant. Probable cause for a search warrant, in this case, didn’t exist.

Sheriff Johanknecht weighs in

Fear aside, King County Sheriff Mitzi Johanknecht thinks her deputies handled this non-emergent order correctly. While she confirms the factual details of this story, she doesn’t necessarily think her deputies should have done anything differently under the new law.

But the sheriff also says the fear from her deputies on how to act is genuine. She chides the collection of supposed police accountability laws recently passed as confusing. She even notes some conflict with each other.

“There’s a healthy amount of fear over the new laws,” Johanknecht tells the Jason Rantz Show on KTTH. “The new law clearly outlines, more specifically, the actions the legislature expects law enforcement to take. But there are deputies who fear they will be charged or arrested based on confusion between the tactics bill and use of force bill.”

Johanknecht is currently working to create policies to better and more clearly implement the new laws before they go into effect.

“Their fear of what can happen in the future is real and we’re working through policy to protect them,” she said.

In the meantime, agencies across the country are changing how they deal with mental health crises, and unfortunately, we’re all at risk.

Penalties for violating any of the new laws include losing one’s peace officer certification. If even a soft restraint can run afoul of the new laws, officers have said they will stop using it.

Consequences of the new law: uncertainty, less mental health intervention

The King County Sheriff’s Office isn’t the only agency witnessing fear amongst its members. Sedro-Woolley Police Chief Lin Tucker recently recounted a domestic call incident where police responded, but could not act.

When officers and a social worker arrived, they saw a partially nude man experiencing a mental health or drug-related crisis. They could not get the man to cooperate without the use of force, so officers left. An hour later, they received another phone call, showed up to address the man a second time, but again left without involuntarily committing the man for treatment.

“Our whole system is a systemic flaw that doesn’t have the depth that we need. We need some way that we can pick up a person in crisis and get them to professional help,” Chief Tucker told KING 5.

Outgoing Bellevue Police Chief Steve Mylett also noted the problems with the new legislation.

“All the legal advisors for the cities are trying to untangle some of the contradicting language in some of the bills,” Mylett told the Jason Rantz Show on KTTH.

He noted that “municipalities are interpreting this differently, and we need clear direction from the Attorney General’s office, quite frankly.”

Did you like this opinion piece? Then listen to the Jason Rantz Show weekday afternoons from 3-6 p.m. on KTTH 770 AM (or HD Radio 97.3 FM HD-Channel 3). Subscribe to the podcast here. Follow @JasonRantz  on  Twitter,  Instagram, and Parler, and like me on Facebook

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Rantz: SeaTac arson suspect faced involuntary commitment hours earlier, fear of new law may have played role