Public safety is the number one priority of local government. While we have many responsibilities to our constituents, providing for the safety of our streets and neighborhoods is the most important. That has become more difficult in the past year due to several factors, most of which are out of our control at the local level. In my column this month, I will highlight some of these challenges and their impacts on community safety.
Following the murder of George Floyd, nationwide calls to defund the police resulted in many jurisdictions reducing funding for law enforcement and passing reforms claiming to make communities safer. The Washington State Legislature was among those to take some of these measures.
In the 2021 legislative session, the Washington State Legislature responded to calls for police reform by passing significant changes to policing regulations in state law.
HB 1054, relating to police tactics, changes the instances in which an officer can pursue suspected criminals. By requiring probable cause rather than reasonable suspicion to pursue suspects, less criminals will be caught and brought to justice. Officers risk losing their jobs and livelihoods by violating these new standards which are not clear or easy to understand.
HB 1310, relating to police use of force, makes changes to state law limiting the instances that police can use force against someone. While this seems legitimate on its surface, the implications make the job of our police harder when responding to community concerns. For example, someone in a mental health crisis may need intervention but may not be willing to accept help at first instance. The ability of police to intervene can help individuals get the help they need while keeping the community safe. That will be more difficult because of these changes. I have already heard from social workers who are not able to do their jobs without police support which is now restricted.
Another recent change is the Blake Decision and legislative “fix”. This decision by the Washington State Supreme Court ruled that the State’s drug possession law was unconstitutional and struck it down. Responding to the decision, the legislature passed SB 5476 which reduced drug possession charges from a felony to a misdemeanor. It also requires law enforcement to make two referrals to services before an arrest and charging can take place. These changes are going to make it harder to get people off the street and get help they need. Cities like Marysville and Arlington were having success with their embedded social worker program. The “carrot and stick” approach to these individuals will inevitably be hindered moving forward by this state legislation.
We are already seeing the impacts of these changes and the media narrative surrounding police work in our country. In the first six months of this year, we have already seen 20 resignations or retirements from the Snohomish County Sheriff’s patrol deputies. We usually see 20 over the course of an entire year. In the meantime, violent crime throughout the state is surging.
Many communities were changing their approach to more effective policing before these state mandates. The top down approach from the state is going to make it more difficult in the years to come to keep our communities safe. I will continue to work with the Sheriff’s Office, community leaders, and residents to prioritize public safety and implement more reasonable policy in the future.
Nate Nehring is a member of the Snohomish County Council and represents District 1 which includes Arlington, Darrington, Granite Falls, Marysville, Stanwood, and unincorporated north county. He can be reached by email at Nate.Nehring@snoco.org or by phone at 425- 512-4810.