By The Herald Editorial Board
Russell Wiita, elected as mayor of Sultan in 2019 after four years on its city council, has seen what mayors and police chiefs in other towns, cities and communities in Snohomish County have witnessed in recent years.
Following encouraging declines in crime from 2016 and into 2020, that trend appears to have reversed, starting last year and into this year; for Sultan and its population of 5,300 on up to the county seat of Everett and its more than 110,000 residents.
And the observations are so widely shared that nearly every mayor in Snohomish County signed onto a commentary published in the May 29 Sunday Herald that sought to call attention to a growing public safety crisis and what they believe are court decisions, legislation and allocation of resources that have contributed to difficulties in addressing the crisis.
“We’ve got mayors from big cities, small cities, urban, rural. To get that many diverse voices to agree to a statement like we did in the op-ed, is really telling,” Wiita said last week.
And the realization came quickly, Everett Mayor Cassie Franklin said in a separate interview, that as mayors began meeting remotely every two weeks during the covid emergency, the pandemic wasn’t the only shared crisis.
The conviction to come forward with one voice and bring attention to public safety concerns came following the line-of-duty death of Everett Police Officer Dan Rocha, who on March 25 was shot and killed in a confrontation with a Tri-Cities man Rocha saw moving firearms between two vehicles in the parking lot of a north Everett Starbucks.
“Officer Rocha’s death was the breaking point for me,” Franklin said. “It brought home the whole situation regarding public safety.”
Statistics can tell part of the story of what Everett and other cities, towns and communities within Snohomish County are seeing, if not why.
For Everett alone, according to figures provided Police Chief Dan Templeman, a once-encouraging trend of decreases in criminal offenses in general and more specifically in crimes against persons and in property crimes may be showing a reversal of those trends.
Starting with 16,442 total offenses in 2016, the figures show, that number dropped to 11,314 for 2020, but had increased to 12,249 in 2021. Through April of 2022, a total of 4,522 offenses were reported, and could project out to more than 13,500 through the end of this year.
Similar trends are seen for crimes against persons and property crimes in Everett. Crimes against persons for 2016 totaled 1,959 and had declined to 1,502 in 2019, but increased to 1,622 in 2021; and with 540 offenses against persons reported through April, that figure may end the year at more than 1,600. For property crimes, 2016 recorded 10,055 offenses, dropping to 6,815 in 2020, but had increased to 8,342 for 2021. For 2022, 3,168 property crimes have been reported; with a potential projection to more than 9,500 by the end of the year.
The figures for homicide — murder and manslaughter — have fluctuated since 2016, from as few as two in 2016 to eight in 2019, but already in the first five months of this year seven homicides — including that of Officer Rocha — have been reported.
One decrease in offenses that Templeman does not find encouraging is for “crimes against society,” which include possession of drugs and drug paraphernalia, and points to two concerns to which the county’s mayors and police chiefs are pointing, a state Supreme Court decision and the legislation that followed.
Those drug and related offenses were at a recent high of 1,858 in 2018, and dropped to 1,229 in 2020, a decrease that Templeman attributes to the onset of the covid-19 pandemic. But those offenses fell even further to just 656 in 2021, reflecting not a decrease in use of drugs, of course, but in a change in police interactions because of the state Supreme Court’s Blake decision in February 2021 and the the legislation that passed that spring to apply the ruling to state law. With 159 offenses recorded through this April, that figure is projected to total about 475 by the end of the year.
The Blake decision set a higher standard of proof for possession arrests, finding the state law unconstitutional because it didn’t require proof that a person knowingly possessed illegal drugs. To fit state law under the court’s ruling, the Legislature adopted Senate Bill 5476, which requires police — on the first two encounters with someone in possession of illegal drugs — to refer that person to assessment and drug treatment services, rather than arrest and referral to a prosecutor.
But what the court decision and the legislation has done, said Marysville Mayor Jon Nehring is reduce the effectiveness of a “carrot-and-stick” approach that was being used in his and in other communities, particularly with teams of police and embedded social workers who could use the threat of booking to persuade people to agree to referral and treatment. The simple advice now to get help, without requiring a choice between arrest and agreeing to treatment, Nehring said, aren’t working. Additionally, officers have had difficulty in keeping track of previous contacts, Wiita said.
“That was really damaging to that effort,” Nehring said, resulting, he believes, in his city’s recent uptick in the property crimes that feed access to illegal drugs.
The concern goes beyond one court decision and one piece of legislation. Nehring said Marysville police officers are seeing incidents similar to those reported elsewhere in the state of drivers not stopping for police, following a change in state law that limits the situations in which police can pursue fleeing vehicles, because of potential risks to other drivers and pedestrians.
And while not arguing against the intention of the reforms on policing that the Legislature passed in 2021 — then started to adjust this year — Wiita said, the pendulum swung too far toward making it more difficult for police to do their work, increasing uncertainty in how to respond and lowering morale.
As well, there’s frustration with the county’s criminal courts and the prosecutor’s office, admittedly under-resourced and over-tasked with a backlog of criminal cases, an aftershock of the covid pandemic, as The Herald reported late last month.
Yet, Franklin said, it’s not lawmakers, judges nor prosecutors taking angry calls about crime. it’s mayors and police chiefs who hear those complaints.
“The mayors and I have to be the voice of a broken system. It’s not just Olympia. It’s not just county funding (for courts and prosecutor) or state funding on mental health,” the Everett mayor said.
So the mayors have pitched in to hire a lobbyist to advocate on public safety issues, she said. And she and others are scheduling meetings with lawmakers, as well as continuing conversations with leaders at the county and state level.
The strength of the mayors’ appeal, Wiita believes, comes from their nonpartisan positions but also from the county’s political diversity.
“I think Snohomish County is a really good cross-section of the state because of that diversity of political opinion and economics. That’s the goal” of the joint appeal, Wiita said. “This isn’t a Republican or Democrat issue. Everyone is facing this.”
Public safety town hall
A town hall addressing public safety concerns with Snohomish County Councilmembers Nate Nehring and Sam Low and Sheriff Adam Fortney is scheduled for 6 to 8 p.m. June 8 at the Marysville Opera House, 1225, Third Street, Marysville.