This letter from the ACLU appeared in the Federal Way Mirror and other newspapers in King County this month. Photo by Alex Bruell.

This letter from the ACLU appeared in the Federal Way Mirror and other newspapers in King County this month. Photo by Alex Bruell.

ACLU responds to South Sound mayors on public safety

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 letters

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.

For a detailed breakdown of what police reform efforts passed — and which ones were rolled back — in the 2020 and 2021 state legislative sessions, read this article.

“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 below.

THE ACLU / COMMUNITY LETTER

An Open Letter to Our King County Neighbors

Everyone deserves to live in a safe community, regardless of the color of your skin or how humble your home. Lately there’s been concern our communities aren’t safe, fueled by narratives of rising crime and violence. A recently publicized letter from eight of the 13 South King County mayors made an unsubstantiated claim that policing and drug policy reforms enacted by the state Legislature are driving an increase in crime. Those narratives aren’t just false. They are dangerous. 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 cost to our friends and neighbors is far too great.

Like you, we agree with the mayors that the “health, safety and welfare of the community is the very purpose of government.” We also believe addressing serious, well-documented problems with police conduct and accountability, and ending the failed War on Drugs, will promote the health, safety, and welfare of our communities more effectively than doubling down on failed “tough-on-crime” strategies. As a starting point, all elected officials should provide an honest overview of the complicated set of issues at play when it comes to preventing and responding to crime. They should also work with directly-impacted people and their loved ones to address these challenges in an open and transparent way. Above all else, they must not stoke fear to advance a political agenda — especially when inaction on these issues comes at the expense of Black and brown communities.

Many law enforcement personnel and public officials have blamed the criminal legal system and police reforms for rising crime, but the truth is more complicated. Since 2020, rates of some categories of crime have increased in Washington, mirroring national trends. However, the rise in those crime rates occurred before the state Legislature passed any of the 2021 reforms scapegoated by the mayors.

In fact, despite an increase in car thefts – an uptick that also follows national trends and happened before the Legislature’s reforms — overall Crimes Against Property and Crimes Against Society (drug violations, weapon law violations, etc.) decreased statewide in 2021. If the mayors believe an increase in some crime is due to police reform legislation, shouldn’t they also credit the reforms for decreasing rates of other crimes?

Pinning increases in crime to efforts to improve police conduct and accountability is dishonest, given the lack of evidence to support the claim. Our communities deserve more from our elected representatives.

The truth, supported by evidence, is that new policies are working. There was a 60% decline in police killings across our state in the year after the Legislature passed police reform bills in 2021 — something the mayors’ letter fails to mention. Commonsense reforms, like prohibiting the use of chokeholds and restricting vehicle pursuits, increase the quality of policing and reduce violent outcomes, helping everyone return home safely at the end of the day.

Additionally, in the wake of the State v. Blake decision by the Washington Supreme Court, which found the state’s drug possession crime unconstitutional, thousands fewer Washingtonians are now being subjected to arrest and prosecution for drug use — a public health issue. That means thousands fewer Washingtonians, disproportionately our BIPOC neighbors and family members, are winding up with a criminal record that makes it harder to access services and find housing and jobs. This is a cause for celebration, not fear.

We know what keeps communities safe. It’s not the tough-on-crime approaches embraced by the mayors’ letter, which decades of research have shown are ineffective and harm communities, especially communities of color. What keeps us safe is living in communities where all our needs are met, from mental health support, to social services, to proven community-based violence prevention programs. Investments in housing, health care, jobs programs, education, after school programs, gun control, environmental design and violence interruption programs have all proven to reduce violence and crime. We need to invest in these new approaches at all levels of government and not fall for the false narrative that returning to failed policies will help.

As your fellow community members, we share your desire for government to put our health, safety and welfare first. It pains us to see important policy questions reduced to fodder for election season politicking. The health and safety of all our neighbors and loved ones is our number one priority.

Signed,

A. Philip Randolph Institute Seattle chapter

ACLU-WA

Asian Counseling and Referral Service

Black Lives Matter Seattle King County

Borro Bay Bakery

Chinese Information and Service Center (CISC)

Civil Survival Project

Community Visions

Federal Way Black Collective

Fix Democracy First

Indivisible Eastside

Indivisible Washington’s 8th District

Lavender Rights Project

Next Steps Washington

Northwest Community Bail Fund

Northwest Progressive Institute

People Power WA

Proactive Persistent People for Progress (P4)

Progreso: Latino Progress

Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness

Southwest Youth and Family Services

The Black Community Lobby

Vashon Maury Showing Up for Racial Justice Criminal Justice Action Team

WA Partners for Social Change

Wallingford Indivisible

Washington Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers

Washington Coalition for Police Accountability

Washington Defender Association

Washington Innocence Project

THE MAYORS’ LETTER

South King County Mayors Frustrated with Rise in Crime and Violence

August 4, 2022 – The mayors of the South King County cities of Auburn, Black Diamond, Enumclaw, Federal Way, Kent, Pacific, Renton, and Tukwila are united in our ongoing plea to our King County and Washington state criminal justice partners to help us stem the rising tide of crime and violence in our communities. 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. Our community of residents, businesses, and visitors – the victims of these crimes – are fed up and action is necessary.

The rise in crime coincides with a number of events, including:

  • The passage of SB 5476 which, in answer to the Washington State Supreme Court decision in State v. Blake, prevents cities and counties from charging a person with drug possession unless the person is allowed non-mandatory self-directed drug treatment for the first two offenses. Yet, there is no incentive or consequence that encourages addicted users to get into treatment, there is an insufficient system to support the addicted, and if they wanted to get into treatment, it is unavailable or too expensive.
  • An influx of more addictive methamphetamine and a flood of fentanyl – both of which are significantly contributing to mental health issues, an increase in violence and property crimes, and death. Dealers of illicit drugs are engaged in a violent drug turf war, and users often commit property crime to sustain their addiction.
  • The passage of HB 1054 which, with the exception of DUI cases, made it unlawful for officers to engage in a vehicle pursuit when they have reasonable suspicion that a person in the vehicle has committed a criminal offense. Many offenders are aware of the law, and cases where offenders elude police are on the rise.
  • A juvenile and felony criminal justice system in which it takes many months, if not years, for criminal charges to be filed, resolved, or tried.
  • A felony prosecution system in which felony filing standards for various crimes are higher than the standards set by state law resulting in many crimes being filed as misdemeanors or not filed at all. These standards are established with insufficient input by the Cities whose communities are impacted.
  • A felony prosecution system where juveniles and soon adults have their criminal charges deferred, yet treatment and restorative justice programs required of participants are difficult to find, are accompanied by costs that price low-income offenders out of programs, and there is limited accountability for failures in program compliance.
  • A King County Jail system that does not allow for booking of felony suspects on a routine basis. The Norm Maleng Regional Justice Center in Kent no longer permits police department bookings. Moreover, there are times where the Seattle Justice Center is closed to booking or the booking process takes hours. In the best of circumstances, South King County police officers spend hours not responding to crimes, but instead transporting and booking suspects. In the worst circumstances, there are times when officers have nowhere to book felons.

While South King County agencies have been leveraging their city-level resources to prosecute misdemeanor adult crimes – misdemeanor adult crimes are the only crimes that cities have jurisdiction to prosecute – there is a need for improved and timely juvenile and adult felony criminal accountability at the County level.

The Cities support many criminal justice reform efforts, and the safety of everyone in our diverse communities remains of paramount importance. And while the Cities support efforts to reform criminals and stop the revolving door of incarceration by treating the underlying conditions that lead to criminal activity, services must be available and proven, must be accompanied by real consequences for failure, must be equitably available, and the safety of the community must be the most important consideration. The protection of the health, safety and welfare of the community is the very purpose of government.

We have had numerous meetings with the offices of the King County Executive and Prosecutor, as well as state legislators and others with hopes for collaboration and problem solving to reach better outcomes. Those efforts are ongoing, but the consequences of the challenges to our system are real and immediate. Police officers are reporting an alarming trend of criminals who know the laws and exploit them to their advantage. With a lack of immediate accountability aimed squarely at protecting the community, the Cities are faced with a seemingly insurmountable problem. For the Cities’ part, they will continue to:

  • Respond to calls for police service and prosecute matters within their jurisdiction (adult misdemeanor offenses) to the fullest extent possible.
  • Continue to refer juvenile and felony cases to the King County Prosecutor for filing and continue to work with the King County Prosecutor’s Office and Executive with regards to juvenile and felony prosecution as well as incarceration to ensure, to the highest degree possible, public safety in an environment of police services centered on safety and accountability takes precedence over all else.
  • Lobby state representatives to pass safety-centric laws aimed at protecting the community through safe and accountable police conduct, swift offender accountability accompanied by required and available treatment, as well as laws that recognize that controlled substances are ravishing our community and cannot be tolerated.
  • Continue to work with the state to adequately fund and make available accessible mental health treatment and drug addiction services for those who wish to access them, as well as treatment for those incarcerated.

The Cities have implemented the changes set forth in the numerous police reform bills passed in Washington. 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. 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. Our Cities are publicly announcing that we stand ready to partner in the healing and safety of our community.




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