By The Herald Editorial Board
The coalition brings together 15 cities in Snohomish County, large and small; urban, suburban and rural; with officials and local businesses representing the range of political thought, but all with similar experiences and shared concerns for recent increases in crime, drug addiction, homelessness and their frustrated efforts to effectively address those problems.
They’ve reached the limits of what they can do individually, and are now making a collective effort to bring more attention to those issues and press for legislative reforms and greater public scrutiny on decisions they say are working against their efforts.
The Mayors and Business Leaders for Public Safety, officially launched the effort Tuesday at a downtown Everett park amid growing frustration and a sense that they’ve lost ground on addressing the often-related issues, even as that work continues and expands.
The group, chaired by Everett Mayor Cassie Franklin and Marysville Mayor Jon Nehring, intends to lobby state lawmakers on public safety issues as well as work for greater scrutiny of the county’s criminal justice system.
The cities are holding up their end of a list of responsibilities, Franklin said; hiring, training, equipping and retaining police and other first responders in a difficult job market, adding social workers to patrol with police, investing in shelter and housing and working with nonprofit agencies to resolve and prevent homelessness.
“But a city can only do so much,” Franklin said, during an interview the day before Tuesday’s launch. “We rely on these other systems, other branches of government to do their part, too. And it doesn’t feel like we’re getting enough support from those other systems right now,” she said.
The problems, in the view of the mayors, are arising chiefly out of two pieces of legislation — or rather a lack of corrective legislation — regarding law enforcement; and scarce transparency and public understanding regarding decisions made by prosecutors and judges on bail and sentencing.
Work by the state Legislature in recent years to adopt a package of police reforms in response to the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officers in 2020 resulted in reforms that ended or corrected a range of tactics that elsewhere had resulted in injuries and deaths during police responses, including choke-holds and no-knock warrants.
But at least one legislative attempt to balance safety and law enforcement practices — regarding police vehicular pursuits of suspects — remains to be addressed when the Legislature convenes in January. With police believing the change discourages them from pursuing suspects, the public perception has grown that motorists can flee and won’t be pursued. Legislation to correct an earlier bill did pass the House this year, but died in the Senate before the session’s end.
The group also wants to see a return of consequences for possession of illicit drugs. A 2021 state Supreme Court opinion — called the Blake decision — ruled as unconstitutional those felony convictions for possession of drugs when intentional possession could not be proved. The Legislature’s response to Blake effectively decriminalized drug possession.
But, the group claims, it was another instance where the work of police was made more difficult and where an effective tool to encourage those addicted to drugs to seek treatment was frustrated.
The ability of police to present a choice to those stopped for possession — either a referral for treatment or being booked into jail — has been complicated by that decriminalization, said Nehring, the Marysville mayor.
“We were having real success motivating people to get into treatment because it would allow them to avoid prosecution,” he said. “There has to be a motivating factor.”
Franklin said her city’s officers see the same thing.
Legislation has been proposed and is likely to come up again next year, but a debate remains about the suitability of a jail cell for detox and drug treatment.
Franklin acknowledged that jail isn’t an ideal place for treatment, but the streets are worse and the result of decriminalization has removed the possibility of jail as a motivator.
“Before the Blake decision we were able to get people into treatment, and since then we have gotten zero people into treatment in the city of Everett through the police department,” she said.
More funding would be welcomed for detox programs and inpatient treatment, Franklin and Nehring said, but cities can arrange for medically assisted treatment for addiction on demand; when they can convince an individual of the need.
At the same time, the coalition wants to increase scrutiny on the decisions regarding bail and sentencing, pointing to frustrations they are hearing from residents about people returning to the streets shortly after they’ve been arrested.
Again, debate remains about the equity of bail when it keeps low-income defendants in jail but allows those with means to free themselves before trial, but the coalition wants to inform that debate with greater public transparency and understanding as to how those decisions are being made.
These problems, Nehring and Franklin said, also are making it even more difficult — at a time when a range of professions are having difficulty in attracting employees — to hire and retain police officers.
Everett is “bleeding out” officers, Franklin said, losing officers to retirement or other states and unable to attract potential hires from those states and Washington’s own communities.
“The reputation of Washington state is, ‘Don’t go there if you’re in this line of work,’” Nehring said.
Correcting that reputation first requires that state lawmakers, other officials, prosecutors and judges take responsibility for these issues. Both mayors also are supportive of work moving forward to establish regional law enforcement training centers throughout the state to make that training more accessible. But to fill those training spots, the case still has to be made that current problems have been corrected.
People go into law enforcement, Franklin said, with the desire to keep a community safe.
“If we’ve taken away the tools they use to keep the community safe, where’s the joy in a job well done?” she asked. “The whole purpose in their work is to ensure the safety of the community.”