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ACLU Responds to South Sound Mayors on Public Safety

A range of community organizations, service providers and public defender associations, including the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), issued a concerted statement this month supporting police reform efforts and pushing back against calls for a “tough on crime” approach to community safety.

The organizations ran print and digital ads in several regional newspapers this month, including the Federal Way Mirror, responding directly to a joint statement by numerous South King County mayors in August.

“Lately, there have been concerns that our communities are unsafe, fueled by stories of increasing crime and violence,” the letter read.

But the idea that recent legislative changes have increased crime is false and “dangerous”, according to the letter’s authors.

“We must prioritize evidence-based approaches to safety for all and not fall into the false narrative that we need tough-on-crime policies that lead to violence against BIPOC communities,” they said. said the authors of the letter, referring to blacks, aboriginals and people of color.

Letters

The August mayors’ letter asked for help from King County and Washington State to get crime under control.

“Towns in King County are seeing a disturbing increase in violent crime, as well as drug-related and property crime, including auto theft, burglary and robbery,” 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:

Passage of bills SB 5476 and HB 1054;

Delays in filing and resolving criminal charges;

Inability of prosecutors to charge certain crimes with crimes, or charge them at all;

Deference of charges without adequate access to or accountability for treatment and restorative justice programs;

Limited space and long waits when police try to book suspected criminals; and

The recent methamphetamine and fentanyl outbreak in Washington.

The mayors’ letter specifically cited SB 5476, last year’s legislative response to the state Supreme Court’s decision in State V. Blake that struck down Washington’s criminal law for simple drug possession (RCW 69.50.4013). The court ruling meant there was no law on the books making possession of certain controlled substances a crime. People convicted of simple drug possession may be eligible to have their conviction overturned by the courts.

SB 5476’s response was to make simple possession a misdemeanor with mandatory diversion to food services for the first two offenses. But that bill is designed as a temporary fix that expires on July 1, 2023, meaning the legislature is forced to craft a more permanent fix for Blake’s situation this year.

HB 1054, meanwhile, was passed in 2020. This bill banned chokeholds and neck restraints, limited the use of tear gas, and banned “no knock” warrants.

But his most controversial change was to police pursuits, limiting officers to only be able to initiate one if they have probable cause that the suspect committed a violent, sexual, escape or DUI offence. Prior to this law, police departments had wide latitude to set their own rules for car chases. Despite efforts championed by Republicans in last year’s session, HB 1054 still stands.

“Cities are now calling on the county and state to take immediate action to address the toll that increased crime is taking on members of our community,” the letter’s authors concluded. “Young people are dying or injured in the streets, public spaces are being destroyed, and the homes, businesses and property that members of our community have worked for are at constant risk of loss.”

The letter from the ACLU and other community organizations agrees that safety is important, but essentially says the mayors have misdiagnosed what is 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 across the state in 2021.

“If mayors believe an increase in certain crimes is due to police reform legislation,” the ACLU letter asks, “shouldn’t they also credit the reforms for the decrease in crime rates?” other crimes?”

The increase in some crime categories, such as violent crimes, reflects ongoing national trends prior to law reform efforts, the letter points out. (A Council on Criminal Justice report found the national homicide rate jumped 29% in 2020 and rose another 5% in 2021, though the current rate is still well below its peak in the early 2000s. 1990s.)

And the number of people killed by police across the state fell 60% in the year following police reform efforts, the letter’s authors point out.

The Blake decision, meanwhile, means thousands fewer Americans are getting criminal records, which impacts their ability to get jobs or housing, for drug possession. “This is cause for celebration, not fear,” the letter read.

Changes in crime

How has crime changed in recent years in Washington? There is no easy answer to this question, although WASPC data sheds light on the matter.

From 2020 to 2021, reported crimes against persons – such as assault, rape and robbery – increased by 4.1% and violent crimes increased by 12.3%. That’s a reversal from 2019 to 2020, in which crimes against people fell 4.7% and violent crimes dropped 3.6%.

Property crimes, such as drug and weapons offences, increased by 13.8% from 2019 to 2020, but then decreased by 1.8% from 2020 to 2021.

Crimes against society fell 16.8% from 2019 to 2020 and then 49.2% from 2020 to 2021. This category includes drug-related offences, so the Blake decision may have influenced in part the decline.

Perhaps the best-known statistic is the relative increase in murders over the past two years. In 2019, only 206 murders were reported, and this number rose to 307 in 2020. By 2021, it had reached 325.

The full text of the two letters is attached to this article.