Kent police chief says new laws don’t prevent response, but limits ‘how we approach it’

Aug 29, 2021, 7:12 AM | Updated: Aug 30, 2021, 10:43 am
Kent police...
The outside of the Kent Police Department building. (Photo courtesy of Kent Police Department/Facebook)
(Photo courtesy of Kent Police Department/Facebook)

After a suicide incident in Kent, a couple police officers can be heard on body camera video blaming the new policing laws in Washington state for making it so they were unable to help. Kent Police Chief Rafael Padilla explains to KIRO Radio’s Gee and Ursula Show why the new laws were not necessarily to blame.

‘Legitimate issues that need to be addressed’ in new state policing laws

Hours before a Kent man took his own life, his girlfriend had called police for help. Her boyfriend had written a suicide note threatening to kill himself. But instead of visiting his apartment, an officer called and left a voicemail, and no medics or mental health crisis counselors went to the home either. When family arrived at the man’s home, they found that he had shot himself with a handgun.

In body camera video obtained by KING 5, Kent police officers can be heard blaming the man’s death on Washington’s new policing laws, which went into effect only six hours prior to that 911 call for help.

“It’s a shame they put new laws in place. We could have helped him. Thanks, legislators,” the officers say.

There have been a number of recent cases where police say their hands have been tied, but Chief Rafael Padilla clarified that it can’t all be blamed on the new laws.

Padilla says these laws were needed.

“Clearly, there were instances in law enforcement where there needed to be change in terms of our operations because of use of force issues, particularly deadly use of force and systemic racism,” he said. “We acknowledge that, we listened to it. We met with our community with humility and sincere desire to get better and to improve. And then we got to work on these things, and I want to make it really clear we embrace these changes, we support the laws, the vast majority of them are going to have the positive impacts that were intended.”

“What we’re talking about are about maybe four main issues in the laws that we need, as law enforcement, further clarification and direction so that we can meet the expectations of our community,” he added.

At this point, there’s a disconnect from what the community expects the response to be and what the new laws require, he explained. Additionally, he noted that 90% of the changes implemented in Kent were before July 25 when the new laws took effect.

“The other thing I want to put into place is that the procedure of not forcing a confrontation with an armed suicidal subject with something we had in place before the law,” he said. “So it is a mischaracterization to say that this entire outcome is based on the new law. I think the new law is a contributing factor.”

The policy that he thinks the officers were referring to was a document the Kent Police Department put out, a directive from Padilla as they adapted to the new laws.

“That 10% I said that we were still waiting for confirmation on what to do from our legal [department] and hopefully from the AG. They were referencing a document that I put out, which was directives on how to adjust to the new procedures based on what we interpreted the law to mean, based on our legal guidance,” he said.

This is a typical practice, he explained.

“We put out directives while we work to develop policy and training because we’re still in question. We still have questions about how we really operationalize some of these laws, because they are unclear,” he said.

Padilla again made it clear that it’s not just the laws in this case as there is case law and court rulings that restrict how law enforcement helps people who are in crisis.

“Most of it’s really good,” he said. “Most of it is let’s reduce the amount of force encounters, and those things. But there are other instances where sometimes the bottom line is [that] to help someone, we’ve got to get physical control of them, and that requires us to use force.”

“And that’s where the officers feel let down because they feel like if they make a mistake using force, they’re going to be held to a standard where they won’t be supported for trying to do the right thing,” he explained. “They got in this job because they want to help people, they want to save lives. And so for them, this doesn’t work.”

Attorney General says nothing in Washington’s new police laws would prevent cops from responding

Nothing in the text of House Bill 1310 prevents officers from responding to mental health crisis calls, but Padilla says the issue is in the language of the bill.

“The issue is that there’s language in there that talks about only being able to use force,” he said. “I think there may be confusion because the law doesn’t clearly define, for this circumstance, what force is. It says officers can use force if there’s an imminent threat.”

“So then the details of an imminent threat are what’s at issue here. Define that for me, what does that look like? What is imminent? Is it immediate? Is it they have to take a significant step to show that they’re dangerous? What is imminent? Because before, the law was that if a person posed a risk
of safety to themselves or others,” he said. “So pose means that we can look at this in a preventative way and say, OK, are they headed down a path where they may become dangerous? And can we intervene?”

In this particular incident, it’s normal that officers didn’t go directly to the man’s house.

“A misunderstanding is that when we have word that someone is in crisis and is armed, we don’t walk up to the front door and knock,” he said. “We put a phone call in or we try to get on a loudspeaker. We don’t put the officers in harm’s way where they might be shot.”

“Long before the laws, it wasn’t our protocol because of safety to just walk up to the door when someone’s in crisis and is armed. So let’s make sure that’s clear,” he added.

Law enforcement also tries to bring resources and tries to get the person to come outside.

“In this circumstance, for whatever reason, the deceased didn’t answer his phone, didn’t answer the call. And so now, how do our officers say that he’s an imminent threat? We don’t know what he’s doing in that house,” Padilla said.

“But most times, we’re going to crisis calls. We go to crisis calls every day,” he noted. “It’s not that we’re not going anymore, but we’re limited on how we approach it.”

Listen to the full interview with Chief Padilla in the audio player above, or online here.

Listen to the Gee and Ursula Show weekday mornings from 9 a.m. – 12 p.m. on KIRO Radio, 97.3 FM. Subscribe to the podcast here.

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Kent police chief says new laws don’t prevent response, but limits ‘how we approach it’