KENNEWICK — It soon will be a felony to threaten a police officer, prosecutor, defense attorney, crime victim advocate and corrections officer.
A bill introduced this year after an incident involving threats against a Kennewick police officer was passed by the House and Senate and is being signed today by Gov. Chris Gregoire.
"If we can't keep our own personnel safe, it's hard for us to go out and keep the public safe," said Kennewick Police Chief Ken Hohenberg. "I always go back to what's on the back of our patrol cars, 'Committed to your safety.' To me, that applies internally for personnel as well as externally to the public."
Hohenberg and Benton County Prosecutor Andy Miller testified in Olympia in support of the bill and will be in Olympia to watch the governor sign it into law.
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"One thing I'm happy about is it was pretty smooth sailing for a bill to get passed so quickly when the Legislature's still going on," Miller said. "It was a Benton County case that really originated it. It's a nice reminder that we're as supported as any county in the state."
Rep. Cathy Dahlquist, R-Enumclaw, was the prime sponsor of the bill introduced in the House.
The bill essentially extends the law that protects judges from threats to include other criminal justice participants, but primarily is focused on police officers.
"The average person, you don't have a situation where somebody walks into a coffee shop and shoots four of you. I think police officers, because of their job, do have threats," Miller said, referencing the November 2009 shooting of four Lakewood police officers. "Police officers are murdered. ... No one else has a job where a person is murdered solely where they're sitting because of their job."
There were some concerns about whether the law applies to someone who is drunk or agitated and threatens a cop while in the back of the patrol car. Miller explained that the intent never was to prosecute someone just for a threat, but to be able to take action against someone who showed the ability to carry out a threat.
The bill was amended to make that clear, saying that "the fear from the threat must be a fear that a reasonable criminal justice participant would have under all circumstances," and that threatening words don't count as harassment if it's apparent "the person does not have the present and future ability to carry out the threat."
Hohenberg and Miller began trying to change the law after an incident with Kennewick police Detective Mary Buchan in December 2009.
A DUI suspect became hostile and confrontational when Buchan arrived at the hospital to take him to jail.
He said he was going to find her, follow her home, have dinner with her, then force himself on her and sexually assault her. She said his threats went beyond basic verbal threats, and she truly felt like he would try to find her one day.
"The threats were very, very severe, where she actually feared for her safety," Hohenberg said.
Hohenberg said that when he heard about what happened, he contacted Miller and found that there was no law on the books that would allow him to charge the suspect unless the threats were meant to try to prevent her from doing her job.
"We may never have an occasion to use it, but it's another tool to keep our police officers safe," Hohenberg said.