EVERETT — Mayors from 15 Snohomish County cities have formed a new public safety coalition, the group announced in a press conference Tuesday.
The Mayors and Business Leaders for Public Safety was born out of what civic officials have said is an increase in property and violent crime in Snohomish County. One of its goals is to address mental health and homelessness challenges that are “primary drivers” of the increase in crime, local leaders said.
“As the mayor of one of the smallest cities in Snohomish County, I can attest to the fact that these issues don’t discriminate based on the size of your city, urban or rural,” Sultan Mayor Russell Wiita said at Tuesday’s press conference. “We deal with these issues. They’re not just urban issues.”
Concern about public safety led local mayors and law enforcement to step up pressure on state lawmakers to give police more help protecting communities. They’ve tried traditional means of meeting with legislators, testifying at hearings and writing op-eds in newspapers.
A few weeks back, Snohomish County Sheriff Adam Fortney released a five-minute video in which he, along with several mayors and police chiefs, decried a purported increase in brazen criminal behavior. They primarily blamed policing reforms that limited vehicle pursuits, as well as a state Supreme Court decision, known as State v. Blake, that erased a law making simple drug possession a felony. The video, produced by A Huge Production of Arlington for $4,800, opens with body camera footage of an incident in January.
This new group — which deliberately does not include county officials — is the latest publicly funded attempt to spotlight collective concerns. Mayors are looking to initially raise $80,000 for the campaign. Cities are asked to contribute $15,000, $7,500 or $3,750 based on their size. Businesses and organizations that join may contribute as well.
No one is precluded from participating if they don’t chip in, Marysville Mayor Jon Nehring said.
The group includes mayors of Arlington, Brier, Darrington, Edmonds, Everett, Gold Bar, Lake Stevens, Lynnwood, Marysville, Mill Creek, Monroe, Mukilteo, Snohomish, Stanwood and Sultan. The coalition intends to partner with local business owners, announcing an invitation Tuesday for them to join via the coalition’s new website.
“This is the first time that a coalition of Snohomish County local government and business leadership will be coming together and taking on these issues,” Lake Stevens Mayor Brett Gailey said. “We’re blessed with a strong business community in our county. … The feedback we’ve gotten from them is a strong backing for what we’re doing.”
They’ve hired FM Public Affairs to guide marketing and education efforts. This firm won’t be lobbying.
“This is a city-driven effort. We wanted a separate public safety group because it’s been such a concern in our communities,” Nehring said.
Issues cited Tuesday are not new.
Some city leaders have been frustrated since Democratic lawmakers pushed through a package of policing reforms last year in response to the 2020 murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis and other high-profile police killings — reforms aimed at reducing the potential for violence and death in police responses.
Gov. Jay Inslee signed three bills earlier this year revising language to address concerns of police that some of the restrictions handcuffed their ability to do their jobs.
But a bill to clarify the rules for pursuits didn’t pass.
There was a bipartisan bill to reinstate the law with new language, making it a felony if the person “knowingly” possessed the illegal substance. It failed to advance.
Instead, lawmakers passed and Inslee signed a bill that largely decriminalized drug possession.
Everett Mayor Cassie Franklin on Tuesday said there is political will to “fix” the Blake decision, adding that the new coalition will be forceful and clear in the fixes they want implemented.
Asked what changes to the legislation the coalition wants to see, Franklin said she would “need one of my expert leaders in law enforcement and one of our city attorneys, probably, to walk through what exactly those changes would need to be.”
“Right now, when somebody is openly using illegal, hardcore drugs in our communities, we have to offer services three times before we can engage them in the criminal justice system,” Franklin said. “That seems like a really good idea on paper. But in practice, you offer services to somebody who’s high, and they’re not in a place to accept those services. They’re not in a place to accept those referrals.”
Franklin noted that the city’s Community Outreach and Enforcement Team has referred 294 people to services since the Blake decision. Of those 294, zero accepted services, Franklin said. Before Blake, Franklin said outreach workers were successful in getting large numbers of people into services such as detox beds and addiction support services.
“We could use motivational interviewing saying, ‘You know, I don’t want you to have to go to jail,” Franklin said. “Jail’s not the appropriate place for you — treatment might be better. … Although jail’s not the perfect detox center, having somebody in jail for a few days detoxing, then they’re in a better position to accept services at that point.”
Mayor Nehring echoed Franklin’s statement that locking people up can be a solution for drug addiction — at least in the short term.
“I think we have to trust the professionals in uniform,” Nehring said. “Nobody in our cities was using jail as a place to house people with drug problems as a permanent solution. It was a short-term solution with a long-term goal in mind.”
The Blake decision as it stands does not help people get better, he argued.
“You go offer them services … none of them take it,” Nehring said. “So what, they die under a bridge? They lay around in a park and shoot up every night? That’s not compassion in our eyes. It doesn’t help the business owners, the citizens in the community or the person that’s sick and addicted.”
Public defender Colin McMahon, who has criticized local law enforcement leadership, called the coalition’s statements on incarceration “disgusting.”
“The idea that any person is better off being in jail is absolutely ridiculous,” the attorney said. “No one who has espoused such a philosophy has the best interest of the individual at heart. When a person ‘detoxes’ in the jail, they’re isolated in a cell. If jail was the better place for people to detox, we wouldn’t hear about drug-related deaths of people who are in custody.”
McMahon argued a more effective approach would be for the coalition to support funding for behavioral health and treatment services for people with substance abuse disorder, “rather than seeing temporary stays in the jails with no access to services as a solution.”
The Snohomish County sheriff said he had no part in the planning of the county’s new coalition.
“I wish them luck,” Fortney told a Herald reporter. “I’m going to stay out of this one.” He later clarified he meant he didn’t have enough information at the time to provide a statement, not that he wanted to stay out of the issues.
Correction: An earlier version of this article misidentified the firm hired by the new coalition.