An array of community organizations, service providers and public defender associations, including the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), released a concerted statement this month supporting police reform efforts and pushing back on calls for a “tough on crime” approach to community safety.
The organizations took out print and digital ads in several regional newspapers this month, including the Federal Way Mirror, responding directly to a joint statement from numerous South King County mayors this August.
“Lately there’s been concern our communities aren’t safe, fueled by narratives of rising crime and violence,” the letter reads.
But the idea that that recent legislative changes increased crime is false and “dangerous,” according to the letter writers.
“We must prioritize evidence-based approaches to safety for everyone and not fall for the false narrative that we need tough-on-crime policies that lead to violence against BIPOC communities,” the letter writers said, referring to Black people, Indigenous people and people of color.
The mayors’ letter from August pleaded for help from King County and Washington state to get a handle on crime.
“King County cities are seeing a disturbing rise in violent crime, as well as drug offenses and property crimes including auto thefts, burglaries, and robberies,” mayors including those of Auburn, Black Diamond, Enumclaw, Federal Way, Kent, Pacific, Renton and Tukwila wrote in August.
The mayors wrote that “the rise in crime coincides with a number of events,” including:
The passage of legislative bills SB 5476 and HB 1054;
Delays in the filing and resolution of criminal charges;
Prosecutorial inability to charge certain crimes as felonies, or to charge them at all;
Deference of charges without adequate access to, or accountability from treatment and restorative justice programs;
Limited space and long waits when police try to book suspected felons; and
The recent surge of methamphetamine and fentanyl in Washington.
The mayors’ letter specifically cited SB 5476, last year’s legislative answer to the state Supreme Court decision in State V. Blake that struck down Washington’s felony statute for simple drug possession (RCW 69.50.4013). The court’s ruling meant there was no law on the books making it a crime to possess certain controlled substances. Those convicted of simple drug possession may be eligible to have their conviction vacated by the courts.
SB 5476’s answer was to make simple possession a misdemeanor with mandatory diversion to restorative services for the first two offenses. But that bill is intended as a temporary fix that expires on July 1, 2023, meaning the Legislature is compelled to craft a more permanent fix for the Blake situation this year.
HB 1054, meanwhile, passed in 2020. That bill banned chokeholds and neck restraints, put limits on the use of tear gas, and banned “no knock” warrants.
But its most controversial change was to police pursuits, limiting officers to only be able to initiate one if they have probable cause the suspect has committed a violent, sex, escape or DUI offense. Police agencies prior to that law had wide latitude to set their own rules on vehicle chases. Despite efforts championed by Republicans in last year’s session, HB 1054 still stands.
“The Cities now call on the County and State to take immediate measures to address the toll that increases in crime are taking on our community members,” the letter writers concluded. “Young people are dying or are being injured in the streets, public spaces are being destroyed, and the homes, businesses, and belongings our community members have worked for are at continual risk of loss.”
The letter from the ACLU and other community organizations agrees that safety is important, but essentially says that the mayors have misdiagnosed what’s actually preventing community safety.
Citing data from the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs (WASPC), the ACLU letter points out that Crimes against Property and Crimes against Society decreased statewide in 2021.
“If the mayors believe an increase in some crime is due to police reform legislation,” the ACLU letter asks, “shouldn’t they also credit the reforms for decreasing rates of other crimes?”
Increases in some categories of crime, like violent crimes, mirrored national trends underway before the legislative reform efforts, the letter points out. (A report by the Council on Criminal Justice found that the national homicide rate spiked 29% in 2020 and climbed another 5% in 2021, though the current rate is still well below its peak in the early 1990s.)
And the number of people killed by police across the state declined by 60% in the year after the police reform efforts, the letter writers point out.
The Blake decision, meanwhile, means thousands fewer Americans are receiving a criminal record, which impacts their ability to get a job or housing, for drug possession. “This is a cause for celebration, not fear,” the letter reads.
Shifts in crime
How did crime change over the last few years in Washington? There’s no easy answer to that question, though WASPC’S data shines some light on the topic.
From 2020 to 2021, reported crimes against persons — like assault, rape and robbery — increased 4.1%, and violent crimes increased by 12.3%. That’s a reversal from 2019 to 2020, during which crimes against persons fell 4.7% and violent crimes fell 3.6%.
Crimes against property, like drug and weapon violations, increased 13.8% from 2019 to 2020 — but then fell by 1.8% from 2020 to 2021.
Crimes against society fell 16.8% from 2019 to 2020, and then a whopping 49.2% from 2020 to 2021. That category includes drug violations, so the Blake decision may have influenced the decline in part.
Perhaps the most well-known statistic is the relative increase in murders over the last two years. 2019 saw only 206 reported murders, and that number surged to 307 in 2020. By 2021, it had reached 325.
The full text of both letters is attached to this article.