Murders are up and police numbers are down in Washington state

By GENE JOHNSON, Associated Press

SEATTLE (AP) — The number of murders, robberies, serious assaults and other violent crimes rose dramatically in Washington last year while the number of officers available to respond to them continued to fall, the chief of the police said Wednesday. organization collecting the data.

The Washington Association of Sheriffs and Chiefs of Police released its annual crime report, finding that violent crime overall increased by 12.3%.

Although the murder rate – 4 per 100,000 population – was slightly higher in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the number of murders – 325 – was the highest since the association began tracking data in 1980. It was 302 in 2020 and 201 before the pandemic in 2019.

Meanwhile, there were 495 fewer police officers employed in the state, which already had the fewest officers in the country per capita, said Steve Strachan, the association’s executive director. That left Washington with 10,736 full-time officers, down 4.4%, to serve a population that grew from 116,000 to more than 7.7 million.

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Washington’s police staffing rate was 1.38 officers per 1,000 people, well below the national average of 2.33 reported by the FBI. Washington would need nearly 7,400 additional officers to reach that level, Strachan said.

“No one should agree with where we are right now,” Strachan said during an online press conference. “Downsizing means – this is the most important point, really – less ability to bring justice to victims.”

Many police departments across the country, from Atlanta to Portland, Oregon, have been grappling with staffing shortages sparked by retirements and resignations amid the pandemic and racial justice protests that have made the agencies a target of budget cuts.

In Washington, some officers have also complained that police reform efforts passed by the Legislature in 2021 in response to the police killing of George Floyd, restricting when and how police can use force, have gone too far. far.

The remaining officers have been strained — responding to one call after another, with less time for behavioral health outreach or follow-up investigation, Strachan said. It also makes it harder for the police to defuse volatile situations, which may involve teaming up with other officers and slowing their reaction.

It leads to burnout and new beginnings, he said.

Gov. Jay Inslee called the report “disturbing,” but pointed out that other states face similar police personnel issues. He noted that the Washington Legislature recently increased pensions for law enforcement officers and amended some of its police reform laws to ease officers’ concerns. He has scheduled a press conference for Thursday to discuss other ways to improve officer recruitment, including expanding the state’s main police academy to facilitate officer certification.

“We’re doing things very actively to try to make this profession more attractive…but it’s no secret that it’s been a tough time for all of us, including law enforcement,” Inslee said. “This movement of defunding the police, I do not agree with him. We need to have an approach that will give us an adequate degree of well-trained and accountable police officers, and we are going to do that in Washington State.

The Seattle Police Department remains down 372 officers from an approved strength of more than 1,300. That has hurt emergency response times, prompted the department to stop responding to low-priority calls and forced officers to work overtime, which has hurt morale, according to Chief Adrian Diaz. Mayor Bruce Harrell this month announced a plan to hire 500 officers over the next five years, including signing bonuses of up to $30,000.

Republicans in Olympia were quick to blame rising violent crime and declining numbers of officers on Democrats’ police reform measures, as well as their response to a Supreme Court ruling in the state that overturned Washington’s ban on simple drug possession. Last year, Democrats made possession of even small amounts of drugs, even hard drugs like heroin, a misdemeanor, and they asked police to divert a defendant’s first two offenses to treatment. .

“It’s no surprise that this chaos is a direct result of flawed laws passed by Democrats over the past two legislative sessions,” Sen. Chris Gildon, R-Puyallup, said in a written statement. “Their policies have created an open season for criminal activity.”

Despite the increase in violent crime, crime overall was actually down – thanks to a 74% drop in drug arrests and a 79% decrease in identity theft, which fell sharply in 2021 to following a wave of pandemic-related unemployment fraud in 2020, the annual report says.

Leslie Cushman of the Washington Coalition for Police Accountability challenged the idea that a drop in police numbers would hurt officers’ ability to defuse, and she said departments can rely more on agencies behavioral health for community sensitization if needed.

“Officers have been trained in de-escalation for decades. It is part of their critical decision making for their daily work,” she wrote in an email. It’s good to see crime rates go down and (I’m) happy that the decriminalization of offenses is taken into account here. This should result in freeing up resources.

Other notable findings from the report include that hate crimes increased by about a quarter from 2020, to a total of 592 incidents, including 91 aggravated assaults. Car thefts also increased by about a quarter and thefts of vehicle parts – mainly thefts of catalytic converters – doubled.

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