Snohomish County Sheriff Adam Fortney in a video decries an erosion of public safety and increase in brazen criminal behavior. (Screenshot)

Snohomish County Sheriff Adam Fortney in a video decries an erosion of public safety and increase in brazen criminal behavior. (Screenshot)

Snohomish County sheriff, chorus of local leaders decry policing reforms

Criminals are getting more brazen, they said. In a video, they called for easing vehicle pursuit rules and stiffening drug laws.

EVERETT — Snohomish County Sheriff Adam Fortney is getting a lot of views on a new video in which he and a dozen local leaders call on state lawmakers to give police more help protecting the public.

He also may be crossing a line in his use of taxpayer dollars to deliver this message.

The five-minute video features Fortney, two Snohomish County Council members, and the mayors and police chiefs of five cities decrying an erosion of public safety and an increase in brazen criminal behavior. They lay the blame primarily on policing reforms that limit vehicle pursuits as well as a Supreme Court decision, known as State v. Blake, which erased a law that made simple drug possession a felony.

“I have never seen criminals as emboldened as they are now,” says Steve Strachan, executive director of the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs, in the video.

The video, produced by A Huge Production of Arlington for $4,800, opens with body camera footage of an incident in January.

Officers had stopped a vehicle but the driver wouldn’t roll down the window to talk with deputies. The car, idling against a curb, was hemmed in on three sides by other vehicles.

Suddenly, the driver steered up and over the curb then onto the sidewalk, sideswiping a fence and other parked cars, to elude officers.

“And he’s gone,” you can hear an officer say as the vehicle zooms out of view.

Fortney then appears on screen, citing a 2021 reform banning most police pursuits unless it involves a violent crime or sex offense.

“Public safety decreased as criminals became more brazen knowing police cannot pursue them to enforce the law,” Fortney says. “We are not advocating for more pursuits. We are advocating for more police authority to engage in pursuits so the criminal action is not given a free pass.”

This isn’t a new concern. Law enforcement leaders have been frustrated since Democratic lawmakers pushed through a package of policing reforms last year in response to the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis and other high-profile police killings — reforms aimed at reducing the potential for violent interactions involving police.

Minority Republicans in the Legislature criticized many of the changes, which they said would jeopardize public safety.

Those laws had flaws. Gov. Jay Inslee signed three bills earlier this year revising language to address concerns of police that the restrictions handcuffed their ability to do their jobs.

But a bill to clarify the rules for pursuits didn’t pass.

When mayors and police chiefs asked lawmakers “for help” last session, the Legislature “made the specific decision to continue to allow for blatant disregard of the law,” Strachan says.

Rep. Emily Wicks, D-Everett, strongly disagreed, taking to Twitter on Friday to blast the video’s message and messengers.

“I found the video from the Snohomish County Sheriff’s office disgusting and dishonest,” Wicks wrote.

Ahead of the 2022 session, lawmakers tried to figure out how to best address the concerns. It led to the aforementioned fixes. But during the session, law enforcement groups didn’t put forth “meaningful solutions” and seemed bent on defeating the bills, she said.

She thinks law enforcement bears responsibility for the current environment by constantly saying they can’t stop people from fleeing. That fuels disregard for their authority.

“In every incident in the video,” she said in an interview Friday, “they had grounds to go after the individuals.”

Snohomish County Council members Sam Low and Nate Nehring are in the video. So too are the mayors of Everett, Arlington, Marysville, Sultan and Lake Stevens, the police chiefs of Everett, Arlington, Marysville, Lake Stevens and Edmonds, and the Chelan County sheriff.

Public safety is “the number one issue residents call our office about,” Everett Mayor Cassie Franklin said in an interview. “Our residents believe we need to be doing a better job. I agree.”

When residents ask why our police are not arresting and holding criminals accountable, she said she tells them they are following the law.

“When the law has unintended consequences, maybe we need to address them,” Franklin said.

That’s not a new message from city and county leaders, and law enforcement authorities. This video may be spreading it more effectively, as it had been viewed roughly 30,000 times as of Friday.

But doing so in this video may run afoul of state laws barring public agencies from indirectly lobbying lawmakers.

Participants appeal to viewers to reach out to lawmakers and urge them to change the current laws. A phone number for the state Legislature is provided at the end.

Under state law, public agencies like the sheriff’s office are restricted to providing information or communicating on matters directly related to the business of the agency.

“Furthermore, agencies must limit their communication to direct communication with elected officials or officer or employee of any agency,” Kim Bradford, spokeswoman for the state Public Disclosure Commission explained in an email. Indirect or grassroots lobbying is prohibited, she noted.

Grassroots lobbying is defined as a program addressed to the general public, a substantial portion of which is intended, designed or calculated primarily to influence state legislation, she wrote. A communication that advocates a change in the law, directs the public to reach out, and provides contact information for legislators would appear to be grassroots lobbying, she wrote.

Fortney declined to be interviewed for the story. Neither he nor a sheriff’s spokesperson would say if they would forward the video to individual lawmakers.

“The video was created by local leaders to bring awareness to public safety in Snohomish County,” sheriff’s spokesperson Courtney O’Keefe wrote in an email.

Jerry Cornfield: 360-352-8623; jcornfield@heraldnet.com; Twitter: @dospueblos.

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