Comment: County mayors urge attention to public safety crisis

Recent legislation, a court decision and lack of resources have made resolving drug crimes difficult.

By the Mayors of Snohomish County / For The Herald

As the mayors of Snohomish County, we share a deep and growing concern for the safety of our communities due to the tide of rising crime in our cities, especially violent crime.

We’re experiencing a disturbing increase in gun violence, illegal possession of firearms, shots fired, drug dealing, assaults and homicides. Property crimes and other illicit behavior throughout our communities, particularly our downtowns, pose a constant struggle for our businesses, property owners, residents and visitors.

This is not due to any shortcomings in our public safety teams. Our police departments and municipal prosecutors do tremendous work preventing and solving crimes and holding offenders accountable. But there are weaknesses and gaps in our legal and judicial systems that are undermining their ability to protect our communities.

Recent legislation, such as Senate Bill 5476 and the Washington v. Blake decision by our state supreme court, have greatly hindered our ability to curtail drug possession in our communities. SB 5476 essentially makes it legal to possess drugs until a person is stopped by police three times. The first two times, police must “refer” the person to drug treatment, but they aren’t required to actually go. So instead of getting drug users into treatment — presumably the intent of the law — the two-referral requirement creates a situation where drug users can possess and use drugs anywhere with no consequences. As a result, we’re all seeing increased drug use on our streets, spikes in property and violent crimes, and tragically, increased drug overdoses and deaths.

The reality that our courts are direly under-resourced and overwhelmed with a backlog of trials also impacts public safety. Cases are slow to move through the process or are dismissed when the statute of limitations is up. It’s less of a deterrent to commit a crime if justice takes too long to be served; if it’s served at all. It’s imperative that we advocate for an increase and prioritization of resources to support our criminal justice system to address this backlog.

One of the most complicated challenges is the severe shortage of behavioral health facilities and programs for those in the criminal justice system, and a gap in how behavioral health competency is determined. Too often chronic offenders with mental health challenges are deemed not competent enough to stand trial, yet not ill enough to require mental health services. This creates an unhealthy cycle for that person, as they’re released into the community without any help with their mental health. Their condition deteriorates, and often they re-offend. We need more investment in beds and services for Snohomish County to better deliver the right care at the right time, especially for people in the criminal justice system.

A consequence of all this is an erosion of public trust. Public safety is an important partnership between our community members and those who keep us safe. Cooperation and support from the community helps local governments address safety issues and helps law enforcement investigate and solve crimes. This partnership works best when people trust that if they see something — and say something — that something will be done. When that trust is broken, and people stop believing things will change, they lose confidence in the public safety partnership. This can lead to disengagement, apathy and ultimately communities that are far less safe.

We need support from higher levels and other branches of government to address these weaknesses and fix what’s broken. We must prioritize resources to add capacity for behavioral health, substance use disorder and other competency restoration options. We must reduce violence, keep guns out of the hands of felons and hold offenders accountable. As mayors we want our residents and business owners to feel safe in their community. We want low crime rates and flourishing communities. We want to restore trust in, and support for, our public safety partnership. We want our residents who are living unhoused or in crisis to have options, resources, and, when necessary, incentives to secure housing and live in a safer, healthier environment. We must help our important law enforcement staff perform their jobs well and come home safely to their families

To our constituents: Please join us as we work to affect change. Help us advocate for necessary reform of these systems. Reach out to your elected officials at the state and federal levels and let them know this is a priority. And to our fellow elected leaders: We must double down and work together to address the flaws in our systems that are perpetuating crime in our communities.

Signed by the following mayors of Snohomish County: Barb Tolbert, Arlington; Dale Kaemingk, Brier; Dan Rankin, Darrington; Mike Nelson, Edmonds; Steve Yarbrough, Gold Bar; Brett Gailey, Lake Stevens; Christine Frizzell, Lynnwood; Jon Nehring, Marysville; Brian Holtzclaw, Mill Creek; Geoffrey Thomas, Monroe; Joe Marine, Mukilteo; Linda Redmon; Snohomish; Sid Roberts, Stanwood; Russell Wiita, Sultan; Mike Quinn, Woodway; and Cassie Franklin, Everett.

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