Police safety video raises issues and ire among elected officials

It is just a video; a video that Snohomish County elected officials and police chiefs made, urging lawmakers to amend laws and make public safety safer for cops and all of us.

Everett police body cam video frame from the video titled “A public safety message from your police chiefs, mayors, sheriff and elected officials.”

Yet, this five-minute YouTube appeal for legislative changes sparked outrage from some lawmakers who feel it is a politically motivated attack on them and does not reflect good policing or better public safety. State Sen. Marko Liias, a 21st District Democrat who represents parts of Edmonds and Lynnwood, said that the video simply “repeats Republican talking points” and labels it “an overly simplistic narrative.”

Those who participated in the video insist that it is not a political ploy, but a plea for lawmakers to amend laws passed during the pandemic and restore needed police powers. Snohomish County Sheriff, Adam Fortney plays a key role in the video. His opening narrative:

“Public safety decreased as criminals became more brazen knowing police cannot pursue them to enforce the law. We are not advocating for more pursuits. We are advocating for more police authority to engage in pursuits, so the criminal action is not given a free pass.”

Fortney is no stranger to controversy. He was the target of two recall campaigns in 2021, which both failed, brought in part, because he refused to follow the governor’s COVID-19 restrictions, and ordered his deputies not to enforce stay-at-home orders.

Politics – or – policing?

State Sen. Marko Liias

In an interview earlier this week, Liias argued that the video is a political attack piece: This video is lifting up themes the Republican campaigns are raising in the November election rather than challenges for the legislature,”  Liias said. “It’s not as if everything was great, then these laws passed and suddenly there was an explosion of crime.”

Janelle Cass

Republican Janelle Cass is challenging Liias in the November election. She has made crime a centerpiece of her campaign, stating this in announcing her run for the 21st District seat: “Anti-police and soft-on-crime laws coming from the majority party contribute directly to escalating crime and more drug addicts in our state.”

State Rep. Emily Wicks, a 38th District Democrat from Marysville, called the video “disgusting and dishonest.” She said during legislative hearings on police bills that some law enforcement “… wanted the bills dead.” The narrative around the new laws, Wick added, is that some departments protested that “‘Criminals can drive away without repercussions’ and ‘we can no longer do our jobs.’ That, my friends, is a crock …”

State Sen. Jesse Salomon

But State Sen. Jesse Salomon, a 32nd District Democrat who represents parts of Edmonds, Lynnwood and Mountlake Terrace as well as Woodway, said this of the video: “I think raise(s) compelling concerns. I did co-sponsor a bill to restore greater ability for police officers to pursue drivers of vehicles suspected of criminal activity. I am confident we will be considering this issue again next session.”

Edmonds Police Chief Michelle Bennett in a video frame from “A public safety message from your police chiefs, mayors, sheriff and elected officials.”

Edmonds Police Chief Michelle Bennett said that the intent of the video — not politics — convinced her to take part, adding that it has “absolutely nothing to do with partisan politics or political agenda.” She insisted that she doesn’t want the issues the video raises “… to be politicized.”

Bennett has two brief appearances on screen, and her longest exchange runs less than 10 seconds: “Fewer police officers mean less ability to provide justice for victims. They need to know we are here for them when they call.”

The chief told me that Edmonds policy on police pursuit is already “very restrictive,” and that the need to apprehend cannot outweigh public safety. But she believes lawmakers can give police more leeway on when they can pursue; “I think the legislature not fixing the pursuit legislation is a disservice to community protection,” she said. There is “potential danger for police and disorder if we can’t stop” some people, Bennett added.

What mayors and police chiefs in the video say they want

Many of the new crime laws enacted in 2021 were forged in the crucible of nationwide protest and reaction after the police murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis. The Washington State Legislature wrote nearly a dozen new laws, from pursuit to police accountability, from training to social justice to mental health crises. Some of the laws were unclear; police departments did not know how their officers were supposed to react in certain situations.

“When people disagree, sometimes it takes (lawmakers) a couple of years to get things right,” Liias said. That seems true of the pursuit law. And, on new drug laws, Liias added that “no one suggested that they be permanent or perfect.”

According to the video, what mayors and chiefs want, first, is for lawmakers to “fix” or amend that pursuit law. The way it is now written, it prohibits officers from chasing a suspect unless they have “reasonable suspicion” that the driver is impaired — by drugs or alcohol — or they believe they are an escaped felon or has committed a violent crime or sex crime. Officers must also decide if the person fleeing in an “imminent threat” and whether the risk of the suspect getting away outweighs the dangers of a high-speed chase.

Video frame from the public safety message.

The second issue is the 2021 State Supreme Court decision that threw out the law on drug possession, the backbone of Washington drug prosecution for the past 70 years. The old law allowed a person to be arrested and convicted of a felony for possessing drugs without having to prove they knew about the drugs or intended to use them. That decision, in the middle of the state legislative session, threw drug enforcement into chaos. Lawmakers are still wrestling with what new drug laws should include. The court decision left cities and counties scrambling to throw out decades of convictions and to refund fines. A legislative task force is already developing a new drug prosecution law for next session.

A surge in car theft is another issue the video blames on the new laws. It highlights statistics that show that there were more than 4,500 car thefts in the state last year; already this year, that number has almost doubled, to 8,300.

Former King County Sheriff John Urquhart testifying before Congress in 2013.

But in an August 2022 Seattle Times opinion piece, former King County Sheriff John Urquhart questions blaming the spike in car thefts on the new laws. FBI data, he writes, shows that increase started in 2020 — before the new pursuit law — and is part of a national increase. To the argument that speeders are “not pulling over,” which the Washington State Patrol reports has happened more than 900 times this year, Urquhart said, “Unfortunately, criminal suspects get away all the time. Do we really want a potentially lethal police pursuit for the noncriminal infraction of speeding, expired tabs or failure to signal?”

The state Legislature already knows it is under pressure this next session to amend and clarify these laws. Senate Majority Leader Andy Billig, a Spokane Democrat, agreed that fixing the drug law “will be one of the most important issues we tackle in the 2023 legislative session.” He said lawmakers must get “the right solution for our community as a whole and for individuals suffering from substance abuse disorder.”

In his op-ed, former sheriff Urquhart said he thinks “It would be a mistake to roll back the new law on vehicular pursuits, especially before even allowing time to see the outcomes.” He said that deaths from vehicular pursuits here have dropped from seven each in 2019 and 2020, to just one in the year since the chase law took effect.

Last year, lawmakers came within a handful of votes of amending the pursuit law to restore more authority to police; at the last minute, some lawmakers who had promised to approve the amendments backed out. Sen. Liias believes there is room for compromise, but that “repealing that law would lead to more dangerous outcomes.”

The timing of the video clearly seems designed to put more election-time pressure on legislators and perhaps change the outcome of some races. But supporters and critics of the crime laws know the only fix for the perceived flaws is to work together in the next session. Will the “safety video” prompt that cooperation or stifle it? For progress to be made, it will take what Urquhart calls “cooler heads to prevail.”

— By Bob Throndsen

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