Comment: Public safety crisis requires legislative action

With crime statistics rising and a loss of officers, lawmakers need to correct recent legislation.

By Nate Nehring, Sam Low and Adam Fortney / For The Herald

Snohomish County is facing a public safety staffing crisis. While the problem is not unique to our county, the consequences are affecting every resident.

Despite best efforts by law enforcement agencies to recruit and retain qualified officers, we are seeing officers leave in unprecedented numbers. Here in Snohomish County, we are only halfway through the year and have already had 30 sheriff’s deputies resign or retire early. This is in contrast to the average number of 20 separations per full calendar year. Deputies are moving to work in other states, taking early retirements, or quitting the profession entirely and seeking career changes due to the unfortunate anti-police sentiment which has built up in Washington state. Our ability to fill those empty positions is limited as we compete with a greater number of understaffed agencies for a lower number of upcoming recruits.

Understaffed law enforcement agencies are leading to increased crime in our communities, exhaustion for the officers who remain, and an inability to respond to quality-of-life crimes. Our Snohomish County deputies are often operating under “Level II” staffing, which means they are not staffed to respond unless there is an active crime in progress. This means that when a resident comes home to a broken car window, or the front door of their house left wide open with their belongings missing, they will likely face a several-hour wait time before a deputy is available to respond.

This is completely unacceptable. And it isn’t the fault of law enforcement. The burden for this staffing crisis rests on the shoulders of those who have created an anti-police climate in our state.

In the midst of this staffing crisis, crime is on the rise in Snohomish County and throughout Washington state. Data from the past two quarters show a nearly 25 percent increase in felony B crimes in our county from pre-pandemic levels. At the same time, when someone is arrested on a felony, their average length of stay in jail has fallen dramatically.

Criminals have been emboldened by recent actions at the state level. During the 2021 legislative session, several bills were passed that limited the ability of law enforcement to do its job properly.

Thankfully, some of these bills were fixed in this year’s legislative session. One issue which the legislature failed to address, however, was a fix to the police pursuit legislation. As a result of this recent change, law enforcement personnel are unable to engage in vehicular pursuits unless a violent crime has been committed.

This has led to viral videos in Washington state of individuals committing crimes and driving away in plain sight, ramming police cars and even calling 911 to encourage officers to watch them do “doughnuts” in busy intersections. This is humiliating for law enforcement, infuriating for the public, and emboldening to the criminal element in our society.

Another state action which has put community safety at risk is the state Supreme Court’s Blake decision. This decision effectively decriminalized the use of hard drugs such as meth, heroin and fentanyl in our communities. The Legislature had an opportunity to fix this issue as well, but unfortunately failed to pass a meaningful bill.

As a result, our diversion and drug treatment programs have been completely undermined. Snohomish County was making positive gains through a carrot-and-stick approach which connected individuals in need with services while holding criminals accountable. Now, as a result of the Blake decision, law enforcement regularly witnesses individuals passed out, high on drugs, and are unable to utilize that carrot-and-stick approach to get those individuals the treatment they desperately need. In the name of compassion, our state is subjecting these individuals to prolonged misery as they battle an addiction with little incentive to receive treatment.

The Snohomish County Sheriff’s Office announced last week a decision to dissolve specialty units (K-9, Directed Patrol, and Office of Neighborhoods) and move those deputies back to patrol. This was a difficult but necessary decision to prioritize the safety of both officers and the general public in the midst of the staffing crisis we face. In just the past month, three deputies have been assaulted and hospitalized following Code 3 (help the officer) calls. For context, in the past many officers wouldn’t hear that many Code 3 calls in the span of entire careers.

Earlier this month, we held a town hall on public safety to discuss the issues of staffing, rising crime, state legislation and addiction to drugs such as fentanyl. This was a great discussion to raise awareness and hear from members of our community who are being directly impacted by these issues.

We cannot make meaningful progress in reducing crime, addressing addiction, and fully staffing our law enforcement agencies without changes by the state Legislature. We urge members of the public to join the growing number of local elected officials calling for addressing the Blake decision, fixing the police pursuit law, and creating a climate in Washington state that prioritizes public safety and values those who answer the call to the law enforcement profession.

Snohomish County Councilmember Nate Nehring represents the council’s District 1. Sam Low represents the council’s District 5. Adam Fortney is Snohomish County sheriff.

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