We have a duty to add protection for officers

Gov. Chris Gregoire said she has spent far too much time lately consoling grieving family members of slain police officers.

After consulting with several law enforcement groups, Gregoire offered a laundry list of ideas to improve public safety and – hopefully – avert the horror of 2009 which saw multiple law enforcement officers killed in the line of duty.

Less than a month after law enforcement officers filled the Tacoma Dome for a memorial service for four slain Lakewood officers, the law enforcement brotherhood was back to remember Pierce County Deputy Kent Mundell, 44, of Puyallup, who was the sixth officer killed in two months in Pierce County and Seattle.

Lakewood Sgt. Mark Renninger and officers Ronald Owens, Tina Griswold and Greg Richards were gunned down in a Parkland coffee shop on Nov. 29. And Seattle Police Officer Timothy Brenton was shot Oct. 31 while sitting in his police car discussing a traffic stop with a rookie officer.

The murders stunned the region and prompted calls for action.

Gregoire, surrounded by representatives from police groups, prosecutors and judges, told reporters last week that while several ideas have been discussed, specific legislation still needs to be worked out.

But many of the notions of what needs to be done have merit – starting with changing the way bail is set for criminal defendants.

Maurice Clemmons, the man who shot and killed the four Lakewood officers, was under supervision of the state Department of Corrections yet was allowed to bail out of jail three times between July and November. Six days after his last release, Clemmons walked into the Forza coffee shop and shot the four Lakewood officers.

Clemmons, a parolee from Arkansas, faced a potential third strike under Washington’s sentencing laws. A third strike conviction brings an automatic sentence of life in prison. Yet he bailed out in spite of those circumstances, and in spite of a mental health evaluation that deemed him dangerous to the community.

Clearly the law and justice system failed.

Gregoire said a possible solution is a constitutional amendment of bail laws. Judges associated with the case said their hands were tied by constitutional requirements governing bail. Under the state constitution, bail can only be denied in aggravated murder cases.

Rep. Mike Hope, a Republican from Lake Stevens and a Seattle police officer, has introduced one constitutional amendment to exempt potential three-strike offenders such as Clemmons from being able to post bail.

Rep. Troy Kelley, D-Tacoma, has filed a bill that would exempt people from bail if they are potentially dangerous and had a prior felony sentence commuted or pardoned by a governor of any state.

Those two bills are certainly a good place to start the legislative discussion about revising the state’s bail system. A man such as Clemmons, who faced a third strike conviction, certainly has nothing to lose after his release on bail.

Gregoire set the right cautionary tone, however, when she said she and lawmakers must be thoughtful about their changes in law. The governor said the legislative effort must be about “thoughtfully improving our justice system, not with rhetoric and with blame and not with legislation that’s based on anger or politics.”

Don Pierce, executive director of the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs, said “Judges should have more discretion to deny bail when someone is inherently dangerous and there is a threat to public safety.” He also advocated a full review of the bail bonds system, greater research on how to prevent armed encounters with law enforcement, and enhanced benefits for survivors of officers who die in the line of duty.

The governor already has ordered better communication between law enforcement agencies on jail bookings and releases. And the Department of Corrections has been ordered to explore ways to improve the 50-state pact that governs adult offender supervision across state lines.

The murder of six officers in two months has shaken this state to its very core. The governor is right when she says we owe it to the slain officers and their survivors to fix the parts of the criminal justice system that paved the way for these tragic deaths – not out of revenge or anger – but out of a desire to ensure additional protections for police officers and enhanced public safety.