Elected officials have changed their tune on public safety – time will tell whether they mean it
Looming elections have a way of making politicians appear pragmatic.
As public opinion sours on our state’s handling of the crime crisis – some Democrats are shifting their stance to stay in step. The question for voters is whether they believe that the sudden course correction will last past November.
After staying silent on the issue of police defunding for more than two years, Governor Jay Inslee said in July that he never supported the idea.
“I think it’s the wrong approach,” he said at a news conference, going on to detail his support for law enforcement (a sentiment he kept to himself while police were being vilified wholesale in the summer of 2020).
In June of this year, Attorney General Bob Ferguson launched a retail theft task force after failing to speak out about the looting of businesses in Seattle and Bellevue during unrest that followed the murder of George Floyd.
King County Executive Dow Constantine, who proposed divesting money from the sheriff’s office in 2020, has been busy over the past month putting forth proposals to enhance public safety and invest in a unit to help reduce shootings.
Even members of the Seattle City Council have done a 180 – or in some cases a complete 360.
Councilmembers Lisa Herbold, Dan Strauss, and Andrew Lewis all campaigned in 2019 on a promise to hire more police officers. Six months later, all of them joined a pledge to defund the agency by 50%. Two years after that, they once again seem committed to increasing the size of the force.
The lack of conviction should, at best, trigger suspicions about their motives.
On the other hand, Republicans and some moderate Democrats have stayed steady – reiterating their concern about laws that were pushed through without proper consideration for the potential consequences.
State lawmakers are under increased pressure to reconsider a set of police reform bills passed in 2021. Among them was HB 1054. The law drastically limits when police officers are allowed to pursue suspects. In most instances, an officer can only pursue someone if there is probable cause they committed a violent crime or escaped from custody, or if there is reasonable suspicion to believe they’re driving under the influence.
Since the law went into place, the Washington State Patrol reports a dramatic rise in the number of people fleeing otherwise routine traffic stops – nearly 1,000 such instances in the first five months of 2022.
Mayors in the South King County cities of Kent, Auburn, Federal Way, Renton, Enumclaw, Pacific, and Black Diamond joined together to urge a tougher-on-crime approach amid a rise in shootings, car thefts, burglaries, and robberies.
In an August 4 open letter, the mayors cited a need for increased accountability at the adult and juvenile level.
“Our communities of color, which I know some of these new ideas are intended to make safer, I’m hearing from them that they’re not feeling any safer. They’re feeling less safe,” Auburn Mayor Nancy Backus said in an interview on The [un]Divided Podcast. “This needs to be a discussion with not just the loud voices to the far left or the far right. It needs to be with those of us who live our lives in the middle and want common sense approaches and accountability for everyone.”
More recently, a bipartisan group of mayors from across Snohomish County released a video alongside law enforcement officials last week – urging citizens to contact their elected leaders.
“My fellow Snohomish County mayors and I share a deep and growing concern for the safety of our communities due to the tide of rising crime we are seeing,” Everett Mayor Cassie Franklin, a Democrat who isn’t up for reelection until 2023, said in the video. “Please join us in advocating for safer communities.”
The video points to the “unintended consequences” of HB 1054. It also says failure to find a meaningful fix for the State Supreme Court’s “Blake” ruling, which rendered Washington’s felony drug possession law useless, is only making our state’s drug crisis worse.
“We now have a scenario where it’s very difficult to get individuals who are struggling with a drug addiction into treatment,” Snohomish County Councilman Nate Nehring said in the video, which has been viewed more than 150,000 times.
Such concerns are far from isolated to the greater-Seattle area.
Mayors from the Skagit County cities of Mount Vernon, Burlington, Sedro-Woolley, and Anacortes also joined together to send a letter to their legislative delegation ahead of the 2023 session.
“We have seen the detrimental effects of increasing crime, drug abuse and an emboldened criminal element that is making our communities less safe,” read the September 20 letter. “Unless serious, thoughtful action is taken at the state level, we believe public safety will continue to degrade for the over 75,000 people we four mayors represent.”
The mayors specifically cited the pursuit law, the Blake decision, and a new law limiting the ability of law enforcement to question juvenile suspects.
There is a little doubt that enough momentum exists to convince the Democratic majority in Olympia that meaningful reforms are needed to keep people safe. But can that momentum last until the session starts in January?
In the meantime, voters should be wary of Democrats who only recently changed course on public safety – especially in the lead up to a critical election. If recent history is any indication, there is good reason to question the sincerity of their sudden shift.
Brandi Kruse is a Future 42 Ambassador and host of the [un]Divided Podcast.