by Gennette Cordova
Earlier this month, eight mayors in South King County issued an open letter to their King County and Washington State criminal justice partners expressing frustration with crime in their cities. Rather than emphasizing the importance of nurturing and stabilizing their communities through non-carceral alternatives, they leaned into the same punitive solutions that have proven to be ineffective in increasing public safety.
The letter from the mayors of Auburn, Black Diamond, Enumclaw, Federal Way, Kent, Pacific, Renton, and Tukwila alleges that the rise in crime coincides with various limitations of police and courts, including the passage of HB 1054, which restricts officers from engaging in car chases unless the driver has committed an escape, is driving under the influence, or they pose an imminent threat to the safety of others.
Let’s discuss why HB 1054 is a logical policy.
Data shows that police car chases are dangerous, often fatal, and they seldomly result in stopping further violence. In addition to killing suspects, many who’ve committed non-violent crimes, the vehicle pursuits have killed and injured thousands of innocent bystanders. If not to stop a clear and present threat, how are we increasing public safety by manufacturing hazardous situations for a person walking down the street or a child passenger who might be in the back seat of the car being pursued?
Furthermore, attached to these concerns of rising crime, Mayor Armando Provone of Renton wrote in a letter, “Every day, the men and women of the Renton Police Department risk their lives to protect our residents.” According to the CDC, with the exception of 2016, car crashes and other motor vehicle-related incidents were the main cause of death for police officers, between 2011 and 2020. Since 2020, the primary cause of death for cops has been COVID.
The majority of the letter takes aim at the slow and difficult process of locking up juveniles (who they refer to as “soon adults”) and felony drug users — these fall outside of the jurisdiction of their city courts. The mayors stress the need for their public safety partners to recognize that “controlled substances are ravishing our community and cannot be tolerated.” While there seems to be a general consensus among us that fentanyl is a serious problem that needs to be addressed, we must be wary of unspecific language that perpetuates our nation’s disastrous drug war, which has caused the incarcerated population for nonviolent drug offenses to soar from 40,900 in 1980 to over 400,000 in 2019.
The mayors are vowing to continue arresting and prosecuting low-level crime in their cities “to the fullest extent,” and to keep pushing for swift juvenile and felony offender accountability. The collective of mayors make no mention of how, in ramping up arrests, they will be accountable to their Communities of Color, particularly Black people, who are disproportionately targeted by police.
Overall, it was a disconcerting read for those who understand that pledging to more firmly embrace incarceration is a futile path to public safety. Last year, the most robust criminological study in history was released, concluding that, “incarceration cannot be justified on grounds it affords public safety.” The abstract of the report, published in the University of Chicago Press Journals, says plainly “beginning in the 1970s, the United States began an experiment in mass imprisonment. Supporters argued that harsh punishments such as imprisonment reduce crime by deterring inmates from reoffending. Skeptics argued that imprisonment may have a criminogenic effect. The skeptics were right.”
Understanding that jails and prisons in their current state don’t lead to less crime and are unlikely to reduce reoffending, it is irresponsible and callous of city leaders to attribute a rise in crime to less incarceration. Instead, they should acknowledge other glaring factors that may be exacerbating crime rates, such as pandemic-induced unemployment, mental and emotional instability, economic distress, and extreme isolation.
To their credit, while clearly secondary to the desire to streamline caging juveniles and drug users, the mayors’ letter also pushed for more treatment and restorative justice programs to be available to offenders, particularly those who are unable to afford them. I agree with this sentiment wholeheartedly. Reducing crime will require expanded access to addiction treatment and mental health services.
But that’s not all.
The reason police and prisons don’t effectively reduce crime is because they react to crime rather than working to prevent it. In an ideal world, city leaders who are interested in public safety would commit first and foremost to supporting the most underserved communities, rather than bringing the hammer down on misdemeanor offenders. For instance, studies have shown that one of the best ways to reduce crime holistically is to invest in communities without displacing the people who belong to them. Renovating of housing and vacant buildings, urban greening and tree canopy programs, and adding parks can all reduce violent crime rates.
Truly addressing crime will mean addressing income inequality, increasing affordable housing, moving money away from traditional policing and towards community-led anti-violence organizations, adequately funding youth leadership and mentorship programs, establishing and supporting after-school programs, and the list continues. These strategies are the cure and not prioritizing them means we will continue to waste an increasingly outrageous amount of resources on Band-Aid solutions.
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Gennette Cordova is a writer, organizer, and social impact manager. She contributes to publications like Teen Vogue and Revolt TV and runs an organization, Lorraine House, which seeks to build and uplift radical communities through art and activism.
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