Comment: Public safety lost ground in this year’s Legislature

Legislation that would have better addressed racism’s effects on communities was not adopted by lawmakers.

By Juan Peralez / For The Herald

Our state’s elected officials regularly proclaim that public safety is a concern. Most candidates when launching a campaign for an elected position express that public safety is one of their priorities.

That all sounds good, and most people will support them if they have coherent plans because they know our communities are not safe. However, for white communities, public safety is not as big a concern as it is for the state’s Black, Indigenous and Persons of Color (BIPOC) communities. White communities in general are concerned about drugs, the mentally ill, the homeless and keeping their families safe from crime. These communities see law enforcement as heroes who are fighting against evil members of our communities to keep them safe. In most cases law enforcement performs their mandate to serve and protect community members and that is admirable. White people have little fear of police, unless they are criminals, and are always expressing that we need more police to keep them safe.

We must acknowledge, however, that BIPOC communities often share a tremendously different perspective and opinion of police. First of all, most members of the BIPOC communities do not believe that they are being served and protected. Secondly, they feel that communities that are mostly Black and Brown are being constantly invaded by police, which is reflected by the number of Black and Brown people killed by police.

Black and Brown people in particular will not even exit their driveways without looking to see if there is a police car nearby. They are also constantly looking in their rear view mirror while driving. If they see a police car behind them they will pull into the parking lot of any business nearby. Their biggest concern is being stopped by police for “driving while Black or Brown,” which could end up in a tragic situation for the driver, things that may never cross a white person’s mind.

In 2022, 1,176 people were killed by U.S. law enforcement officers. Only 370 deaths (31 percent) involved a potentially serious situation with an alleged violent crime. The rest, 806 (69 percent) were responding to mental health situations, welfare checks, domestic disturbance, a person allegedly seen with a weapon, no offense alleged or traffic violations. Over 1,100 people annually have been killed by law enforcement over the last six years and the scenarios remain consistent.

In addition, in 32 percent of cases last year, the persons were fleeing before they were killed while attempting to run or drive off. These are the cases where experts will say lethal force is unwarranted and also endangers the public.

The racial disparities continue, of the 1,176 people killed in 2022, 370 (24 percent) were Black, yet comprised only 13 percent of the population. In most cities, Blacks are three times more likely than whites to be shot by law enforcement, except for cities such as Minneapolis and Chicago, where the rates are 28 percent and 25 percent higher, respectively.

Washington state legislators had an opportunity to pass legislation that could lower the number of people being killed by law enforcement, but chose not to. Being concerned about public safety is one thing but to not embrace an opportunity to improve it is shamefully contradictory.

Democrats should have opposed Senate Bill 5352 regarding vehicular pursuits, which overturned House Bill 1054, passed in 2021. The year prior to HB 1054 being passed Washington pursuits resulted in 12 deaths of bystanders and passengers. The year after passage there were three deaths. How could Democrats overturn a law that was effective in saving lives.

House Bill 1513 was another opportunity this year that was not supported by a Democratic majority. In 2022, 98 people were killed following traffic stops. HB 1513 would have prohibited police from stopping drivers for expired license tabs, burned-out tail lights and other non-moving violations.

The most important bill in this year’s legislative session was House Bill 1333 sponsored by Rep. Bill Ramos, D-Issaquah, that addressed public safety for all state residents, regardless of color. HB 1333 would have created a two year commission to address domestic violence extremism, a recommendation by our state attorney general in a report issued by his office last year. The report was issued after a six-month study by the AG’s office to assess the need to address white supremacist activity, although legislators did not want to call it that.

Washington state ranks fifth in the nation in white supremacist activity and Snohomish County ranks No. 1 in the state according to the Anti-Defamation League. White supremacist groups like the ones that attempted a coup on Jan. 6, 2021, at the U. S. Capitol. Six members of the Oath Keepers and three members of the Proud Boys have gone to prison so far. These groups pose a heightened threat and endanger everyone’s safety, according to the Department of Homeland Security. According to the FBI, these groups pose the biggest threat to our democracy.

Last fall, mayors in Snohomish County formed a coalition with business leaders because of their concern for public safety in the county in particular. Their main mission was to expand policing to address drug addiction, the homeless and mentally ill on the streets. This coalition of mayors and business leaders, because they are all mostly white, have little experience or understanding of the underlying reasons that drive drug addiction, homelessness and mental illness.

Racism, a symptom of white supremacy that has existed throughout the history of our country thrives on inequalities and injustice in every institution of our government. This is the root cause that this coalition should be addressing if they honestly want to address the issue of public safety.

This monumental failure and total disregard by Democratic lawmakers for our public safety and our democracy should be of utmost concern to the coalition of mayors and business leaders if they are genuinely concerned about public safety. They should lobby state legislators next year to support the creation of the commission recommended by our state attorney general’s Office and support traffic safety bills that save lives.

Juan Peralez is president of Unidos of Snohomish County.

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