(The Center Square) – Violent crime in Washington state has increased by 55% since 2015, according to data from the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs, or WASPC. It’s a trend that some legislators have attributed to recent police reform legislation that they believe isn’t getting fixed this session.

“It’s a crisis situation, yet the majority [party] here doesn’t seem to realize it at all,” Sen. Mike Padden, R-Spokane Valley, told The Center Square. Padden is the ranking minority member on the Senate Law and Justice Committee.

In 2015, there were 18,925 violent crimes reported, compared to 29,368 reported in 2021. However, some crimes, such as murder, have increased by 95%, with 166 murders in 2015 compared to 325 in 2021. Aggravated assaults increased by 73%, while rape increased by 51%. Simple assaults increased by 13%. Between 2015-2021, there were 146,323 violent crimes committed, 15% of which involved the use of a firearm.

However, the trends for many of those crimes varied. While aggravated assault increased year over year between 2015-2021, reported burglaries actually fell from 39,688 in 2015 to 35,526 in 2019 before jumping back up to 41,638 in 2020 and 42,267 in 2021. 

While WASPC declined to comment on factors contributing to the crime rate trend, lawmakers like Padden see it as the culmination of numerous public policies regarding law enforcement, including the April 2021 Washington State Supreme Court Blake decision that decriminalized simple drug possession. That same year, there were 6,216 reported drug/narcotic violations compared to 20,578 in 2019. During that same period, the number of reported larcenies increased from 151,794 to 166,496, a 10% increase.

“People that are drug addicts have to pay for the drugs somehow, so they engage in criminal activities starts out as property and ends up in violent crime,” Padden said.

Another change in public policy was 2021’s HB 1054, which restricted the ability of police to pursue suspects on foot or vehicle by requiring there be “reasonable suspicion” rather than “probable cause.” The law was amended in 2022 to roll back the restriction on foot pursuit but maintained the new stipulations for vehicle pursuits. According to WASPC, the number of drivers fleeing Washington State Patrol officers increased from 2021 to 2022 by more than 100%. Washington state is now ranked third in the nation for total car thefts and second among the states for car thefts per capita. Meanwhile, data from the Washington Traffic Safety Commission reveals that between 2015-2021 there were 28 traffic fatalities from a police vehicle pursuit, 19 of which were the drivers fleeing police.

“People that would do harm to society know the rules now, and they’re playing by it,” Rep. Dan Griffey, R-Allyn, told The Center Square. “We have got to get tougher.” Griffey is the ranking minority member of the House Community Safety, Justice, and Reentry Committee.

SB 5352 introduced this session would modify some of the police vehicular pursuit policy but would not restore the prior “reasonable suspicion” for all suspected crimes. Padden sponsored an amendment prior to its passage in the Senate that would apply that threshold for all crimes, but it was rejected.

Padden described the bill as “an improvement but nowhere far enough.”

Senate Bill 5536 would address the Blake decision’s decriminalizing of drug possession, though Griffey said in a statement that the revisions made are so bad that “people will die if this becomes law.” The bill cleared the Senate in a 28-21 vote and is scheduled for an April 4 vote in the House Appropriations Committee.

“I honestly believe this year was a missed opportunity with Blake, with criminal justice,” Griffey said. “We’ve doubled down on the fact that you have the right to die in the ditch.”

Griffey argues that the combination of 2020-2021 lockdowns and the Blake decision have resulted in organized drug gangs taking over the trafficking and selling of fentanyl in the state. Last month, federal authorities raided a drug trafficking operation in Tacoma led by a white nationalist prison gang believed to be collaborating with a Mexican drug cartel. During the raid, federal law enforcement seized 650,000 suspected fentanyl pills along with two pill press machines. 

“They used COVID [lockdowns] as a cover to set up their criminal enterprise,” Griffey said. “There were two years where people were paying less attention to things.”

King County Sheriff’s Office did not respond to a request for comment. The Washington Council of Police & Sheriffs also did not respond to a request for comment. Federal Way Mayor and former King County prosecutor Jim Ferrell was unavailable for comment. 

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