Stronger Families. Stronger Communities. Stronger Washington

The recent rise in crime has been disturbing and unsettling. Everyone deserves to be safe at home, work and in their communities. Unfortunately, recent state and federal police reforms have contributed to making our communities less safe; especially state legislation regarding use of force and vehicular pursuits.

So far this year, homicide rates in the United States have increased 48% compared to this same time in 2020. A Gallup poll this year shows 72% of Americans were dissatisfied with the nation’s policies to reduce or control crime, the highest this century. That’s up from 65% in 2021 and 49% in 2020. In our own state, crime remains a top concern for a significant majority of Washingtonians, including Seattle.

Crime has soared in Seattle in recent years. The city saw a 95% increase in shots fired and a 171% increase in people being shot from 2021 to 2022, according to The Seattle Times. Seattle’s violent crime rate, which had been steady for 30 years, suddenly jumped 20% in 2021.

Vehicle thefts in Washington are up 99% in March 2022 compared with March of the previous year and are up 88% year-to-date, according to data compiled by the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs (WASPC). And Washington now leads the nation in catalytic converter thefts.

No community is insulated from bad public safety policies coming from Olympia. In our own community, we have seen a rise in property crime, and a recent shooting occurred directly in front of my home only weeks after my vehicle was prowled.

Several news outlets reported Centralia police called off a pursuit following an attempted catalytic converter theft in front of my Centralia law office Althauser Rayan Abbarno, LLP, in May. Another pursuit was called off by Centralia police in June after a reckless driver fired three rounds from his firearm while stopped in front of my home. Finally, Lewis County Sheriff’s Office issued a directive in June 2022 regarding limiting DUI-related pursuits.

The Washington State Patrol (WSP) said incidents of drivers refusing to stop for troopers’ lights and sirens has increased and continues to increase, KLCC News reported. The law enforcement agency said it logged 934 failure-to-yield incidents between Jan. 1 and May 17. That’s a huge increase from previous years. It appears the criminals have no fear of accountability or respect for law enforcement.

Restricting officers’ ability to pursue suspects has greatly contributed to skyrocketing crime. Just ask Seattle kidnapping suspect Isaac Sissel. Mr. Sissel called Seattle police officers during a chase, telling them a newly-passed Democrat supported law prevented them from pursuing him. “SPD is illegally chasing me over I don’t know what,” Sissel said to the 911 operator. “It’s an illegal pursuit … They’re not supposed to be able to chase.” 

Last year, the Legislature enacted a suite of so-called police reform bills, with the stated purpose of establishing a uniform statewide standard for the use of force by peace officers. However, as soon as the ink from Gov. Jay Inslee’s signature dried on Engrossed Second Substitute House Bill (E2SHB) 1310 (Uses of Force) and Engrossed Substitute House Bill (ESHB) 1054 (Tactics and Equipment), it became apparent these laws created confusion law enforcement and empowered criminals.

There was a significant amount of disagreement over what constituted physical force under E2SHB 1310. House Republicans, steadfast in their opposition of the flawed legislation in 2021, were instrumental in efforts to repair it in 2022 with the passage of House Bill 2037. The use of physical force is now authorized during behavioral health and certain other community custody interventions. These necessary changes helped provide clarity to the public and law enforcement and will help keep our communities safer.

Less successful were attempts to “fix” the newly codified standard for vehicular pursuits under ESHB 1054, which prohibited pursuits unless there was probable cause that a person in the vehicle had committed or was committing a violent offense or sex offense, or reasonable suspicion a person had committed a DUI offense. In 2021, it was clear from many of us who voted against ESHB 1054 that this new standard chose criminals over victims and would lead to more crime. Sadly, we were correct.

This year, the governor and Senate Democrats blocked the passage of Senate Bill 5919 that would have helped repair the broken police pursuit law. Passage of Senate Bill 5919 would have changed the current law, which restricts what the police can do, and allow police to pursue a person based on “reasonable suspicion.”

Reverting back to the “reasonable suspicion” standard currently used in other states would help reduce crime and keep our neighborhoods safer.

There is a lot of work ahead of us in the 2023 legislative session and safety will remain on the mind of voters, law enforcement and legislators. I am hopeful the governor and his majority party will work in a bipartisan way to find real solutions for the rise in crime. Reverting back to a “reasonable suspicion” standard for allowing law enforcement pursuits would go a long way towards preventing crime and delivering justice.

••• Chronicle Commentary

Rep. Peter Abbarno is an attorney with Althauser Rayan Abbarno, LLP, and represents Washington State’s 20th Legislative District in the Washington state House of Representatives and serves on the House Civil Rights and Judiciary Committee.

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