Comment: More work needed to correct recent policing reforms

While lawmakers made helpful changes to state law, more is needed to help police protect safety.

By Jon Nehring and Erik Scairpon / For The Herald

In local government, its officials have no greater responsibility than providing public safety.

As mayor and police chief for Marysville, this responsibility is constantly on our minds and foremost in our daily work. In full transparency to those we serve, however, we have never been more concerned about our ability to fulfill this duty. Our concern surrounds continued challenges to providing good public safety in Washington state.

The Marysville Police Department has a proven track record of crime reduction. Between 2018 and 2020, officers worked hard to reduce our city’s crime rate by over 25 percent. A similar drop in crime occurred from continued persistence in the two to three years before that. We have demonstrated that with adequate staffing and the proper legal environment, ours is a city where criminal activity is dealt with firmly and appropriately. We emphasize that in doing so, we must treat everyone fairly and compassionately while keeping law-abiding residents and businesses safe. Ultimately, we aim to deliver the quality of living that our residents deserve and have come to expect.

Unfortunately, our city has been recently experiencing a concerning increase in crime rates. It is clear that our state’s approach toward crime, and the measures we are willing to take to mitigate it, have become too reserved. Decisions made at the state level to limit the tools and methods available to our police have significantly emboldened criminals while greatly discouraging current and prospective police officers. These conditions have created unnecessary headwinds in our commitment to community safety. We cannot and will not stay silent as the gains of previous years erode.

A public safety staffing crisis is looming in Washington. Throughout the Puget Sound region, we witness an alarming rate of police officers moving out of state, quitting the profession or retiring early due to the current climate that makes it so difficult to perform their jobs. Here in Marysville, we are currently only able to deploy about 65 percent of the commissioned police officers that are budgeted. Other cities are in even more difficult positions than ours. Taxpayer money is not the problem; we have the budget required to meet full staffing. Over the last year or so, the difficulty has been attracting and retaining quality people to the profession. We continue to find new officers motivated to serve the community but continue to lose quality officers who no longer want to do the job here in Washington. Additionally, we have not had a single lateral transfer from an out-of-state police department in well over a year, despite a history of consistently attracting officers from other states.

We are grateful for our state Legislature’s work in listening to law enforcement and community voices to take action in the 2022 legislative session and make some needed adjustments to laws enacted in 2021. Examples of these positive steps include House Bills 1719, 1735 and 2037, all passed by House and Senate and signed by the governor. Our officers rely on these restored powers to do their jobs effectively: less-lethal tools for lifesaving, community caretaking functions to help meet the public’s expectations, and legally defined use of force. Critically important was the legislative restoration of investigative detentions, a well-reasoned police power with 55 years of federal court decisions affirming it. We thank the Legislature for passing these bills that return clarity and confidence to officers in the field.

Change happens fast, but recovery takes longer. These modifications are only a start; more action is needed to reverse the current trends. As one example, we were disappointed that Senate Bill 5919 failed to pass. This would have modified current restrictions on police pursuits enacted in 2021. The overall result is that legal restrictions have emboldened suspects to dangerously flee from police, knowing that officers cannot pursue them. Recently here in Marysville, we have had seven instances in which suspects rammed police cars to wedge a way out and flee the scene. In each of these dangerous situations, officers could not legally pursue the suspects. These incidents raise the level of danger both to the public and to our brave men and women who work to selflessly serve our community.

Another concern surrounds illegal narcotics in our communities. The most recent Drug Trends Report by the Northwest High-Intensity Drug Taskforce identified that fentanyl use is rising in our region. In Snohomish County, fentanyl accounts for over 40 percent of the drugs seized overall by the task force. We confirm these observations with our own local assessments. Much of the property crime and violent crime in our community is spurred by the trade in illegal narcotics, specifically fentanyl.

Our current legal environment has become overly permissive, removing our ability to balance compassion with legal consequences for drug violations. Our officers now routinely find people passed out behind the wheel and under the influence of narcotics. Sometimes, the car is stolen and filled with stolen property or firearms. Other times, these drivers possess significant quantities of deadly fentanyl that they intend to sell. We cannot understate that significant consequences for illicit drug possession and use are critical tools for maintaining a safe community with a good quality of living. With current drug possession laws poised to sunset in 2023, the question of drug policy must be addressed by our state lawmakers during the next session.

Concerted effort and strong partnerships between law enforcement, the community, local elected officials and our state’s elected officials is needed to strengthen public safety for our communities. We encourage readers to contact their local state representatives and senators to lend your voice to help guide public safety solutions and the future of our state.

Jon Nehring is mayor of Marysville. Erik Scairpon is Marysville’s chief of police.

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