Aberdeen Police Chief Steve Shumate

Aberdeen Police Chief Steve Shumate

Aberdeen Police Chief outlines impacts of state police reform legislation

If your car is stolen after July 25, the cops can’t pursue the thief.

That fact was one of many shared by Aberdeen Police Chief Steve Shumate at a City Council workshop on Wednesday, part of a 90-minute presentation that summarized the hundreds of pages of police reform legislation passed during the 2021 legislative session.

“In my 32 years in law enforcement, I cannot remember a time when there was more change placed upon public safety in a single year,” he said. “Unfortunately, there’s still a lot of uncertainty with the laws.”

Some of the big takeaways from Shumate’s presentation included major restrictions on police pursuits, the deployment of tear gas and possibly other nonlethal tactics, and the use of force.

“Right now the current law is if there is reasonable suspicion based on an officer’s training and experience to believe someone is engaged in criminal activity, if somebody doesn’t stop when we turn the lights on them we can pursue,” said Shumate. “That is no longer the case come July 25,” when the law goes into effect.

The passed legislation allows for pursuits only in the case of a violent or sexual crime, or at least a “reasonable belief” of a DUI. “I think some groups preferred no pursuits altogether and at least (the legislature) recognized in violent crimes police should be pursuing,” said Shumate.

In order to pursue, however, officers are required to receive authorization to engage from a superior officer.

“That’s another point that will be sometimes challenging. You can’t engage pursuit until you provide a supervisor with information to establish probable cause,” said Shumate, which means more distance between the officer and the suspect if the supervisor approves the pursuit.

Under the new law, no pursuits are allowed for possession of stolen property, a felon in possession of a firearm, hit-and-run with serious injury, and third-degree assault.

The same piece of legislation also states an officer cannot use a choke hold or neck restraint in any situation, even if an officer is in a deadly force situation. It also prohibits the use of tear gas unless it’s a harm caused by a riot situation, a hostage situation, or a barricaded subject.

Before tear gas could be used in a correctional institution, permission must be given by the highest elected official in the jurisdiction, in most cases the mayor.

The new law also prohibits the use of any military equipment, and any currently owned by departments must be destroyed or returned by the end of 2022.

“Originally our MRAP (the armored vehicle used to protect responding officers in potentially violent situations) was on the chopping block, but thank goodness the Legislature allowed it because it is not armed,” said Shumate.

The legislation banned the use of .50-caliber weapons as well. However, the department owns shotguns that are greater than .50 caliber, which are used to fire “beanbags,” nonlethal projectiles. Shumate said departments are seeking guidance on whether these shotguns are under the umbrella of the ban.

“The same laws indicate they want law enforcement to utilize less lethal options when at all possible, so I would think they would not want to remove that less lethal option,” he said.

Another bill deals with use of force, which has concerning provisions limiting the use of physical force by officers unless all available and appropriate de-escalation tactics are exhausted.

“The term physical force with respect to this law is not defined,” said Shumate.

The law also requires law enforcement “leave the area if there is no threat of imminent harm and no crime is being committed or about to be committed,” another vague requirement that has not been defined.

Shumate said officers will have to follow these limitations starting July 25, but the State Attorney General’s Office has until July 1, 2022, to develop and publish policy set by the law’s passage.

“There are so many other things we respond to,” said Shumate.

He recalled an incident from his own career with a 14-year-old runaway: “We found this child as a runaway, and that’s not a crime, but the state is wanting the child, but we don’t have cause to arrest her. If the child decides she doesn’t want to go with me, where am I at?”

The law also doesn’t fit with the state’s existing Involuntary Treatment Act.

“The intent of that law is to protect the health and safety of those with mental health disorders,” said Shumate.

“During the 2021 legislative session there was an amendment which would have allowed the use of force in these types of situations, but the Legislature rejected it, indicating the legislative intent was they do not want law enforcement involved in mental health situations. Some departments are refusing to (respond to these types of calls) and that’s unfortunate. These individuals are often in crisis, they are humans and deserve to be provided the services they need.”

Shumate said the legislation passed in 2021 “really focuses on limiting police involvement in non-criminal matters, which is critical because we’ve always been a catch-all. Our citizens are used to calling police for situations that are not criminal in nature; probably most of them for a mental health crisis.”

Another law requires at least the audio recording of some interrogations, which would be an added expense to the city. Shumate said he’s explored the use of body worn cameras, which would cost the city about $75,000 a year.

“The new law doesn’t require body cameras, which would be the most reasonable way (to comply with the law),” said Shumate.

In the meantime, he is submitting a request in the 2022 city budget for $5,000 to provide Cloud storage so officers can record their interactions on smart phones.

Shumate went through other laws in his presentation, dealing with areas like decertification of officers, juvenile access to attorneys, audits of independent investigations, and the prohibition of open-carry of firearms at demonstrations.

While there were some positive aspects of some of the legislation, Shumate is concerned about the “unintended circumstances” of some of the laws, some of which were discussed above.

The department is updating its policies and doing its best to educate and train its officers and staff on the new rules.

Regardless, Shumate said, “As law enforcement officers, however, we will uphold the law to the best of our abilities,” and will track the cost of the new legislation to the department.