2022 Legislative Insights: Change Law Enforcement Response to Mental Health Distress Calls

By Donna Lurie, NAMI Eastside Board President

To keep our readers informed, we plan to feature key pieces of legislation and legislative activity of interest to the mental health community. 

HB 1310 was passed by the Washington State Legislature in 2021 to address concerns over the use of force in responding to crisis calls. The legislation required first responders to use reasonable care and limited the use of deadly force to situations involving an imminent threat of serious injury or death.  Reactions to the new legislation were mixed. Police departments with designated crisis responders continued to respond to 911 calls for mental health crises. Some police departments decided to cease responding to mental health crisis calls in non-criminal situations, causing frustrations for families and social service providers. The Washington State Attorney General issued an opinion stating that health and safety checks and responding to mental health distress calls is part of law enforcement’s community caretaking responsibility. 

HB 1735 is a new piece of legislation that seeks to clarify the expectations for law enforcement when responding to a mental health distress call. The new law reaffirms a standard emphasizing the importance of exercising reasonable care and preserving and protecting human life.  This civil standard does not repeal the criminal liability protections provided to law enforcement in other statutes 

  • When possible, first responders are expected to use de-escalation tactics available and appropriate under the circumstances before using physical force.  
  • De-escalation tactics are explained as including clear instructions and verbal persuasion, slowing down or stabilizing the situation to provide more time for options and resources, tactical repositioning to create physical distance to maintain safety, designating one responder to communicate with the individual, working with a crisis intervention team, and working with behavioral health professionals.
  • When using force, responders are expected to use the least amount of force necessary to overcome resistance under the circumstances.  
  • Physical force must be terminated as soon as the necessity for such force ends.  
  • Deadly force may be used only when necessary to protect against an immediate threat of serious physical injury or death to the responder or another person.

Washington State was ranked a dismal No. 46 in 2020 for access to mental health care by nonprofit Mental Health America. First responders need to be able to take people to places where they can receive mental health services. We need additional crisis triage units on the Eastside. We need more peer support specialists and better preventative and long-term community-based care.  

We urge you to join our Public Policy Committee and lend your voice on mental health issues. Contact Paul Charbonneau, our Advocacy Lead, at Paul@nami-eastside.org.

NAMI Washington is hosting a virtual Lobby Week on February 21-25 and helpful training sessions for all who are interested. Sharpen your advocacy skills with NAMI Smarts Lobby Skills to prepare to meet your elected officials and learn how best to convey your mental health story. Join NAMI members throughout Washington State to change our “mental illness” system to a mental health system.

 

To increase civic engagement and advocacy on a local level, please consider donating directly to NAMI Eastside.