It is Christmas throughout the region, and Jim Ferrell, Nancy Backus, Dana Ralph and Armondo Pavone have more in common than just being the mayors of Federal Way, Auburn, Kent and Renton.
They would like to be doing the fun things that mayors get to do: Flip the light switch on the community tree, or attend children’s breakfasts with Santa.
But they are meeting to try and figure out what to do about a major surge in violent crime in their cities and regionwide.
The police chiefs and police officer guilds have blamed legislation passed during the last legislative session for their inability to reduce violent crime. But it is a little more complex than that.
First, there is the police behavior that led to much of the legislation. After years of white police officers shooting people of color, along with some high-profile cases, police accountability as expected was a high priority in the 2021 legislative session. It was mainly Democrats who introduced legislation to curb police use of force. And it wasn’t just national cases like George Floyd that caught the public’s attention and led to action. Many cases were local and took place in Seattle, Tacoma, Kent and Auburn. Each had cases where police action could be second-guessed.
The intent of much of the legislation was to seek accountability from police officers for their behavior and to emphasize de-escalation and police use of force as a last resort. And the public weighed in when they passed I-940 and changed the officer’s standard o “reasonable.” Each community has many different cultures who wanted to know why it was always the minorities who were shot by police.
King County changed some of the inquest procedures to give grieving families more information. As you would expect, more people of color have been called to run for public office, which has forced communities to confront uncomfortable topics. But not all violence is by police. Federal Way has seen 11 murders this year when the number is usually less than that. Kent has seen 14 murders this year after nine in 2020 and only four in 2019. Kent and Federal Way are also concerned with shootings at bus stops on Pacific Highway South.
A high-profile shooting by police in Auburn is just now going to trial with officer Jeffrey Nelson charged with murder.
Kent also had a high profile case. Each police blotter has seen an increase in violent crime. Firearm violence has also increased. There have been more shootings and more carjackings than in the past. The number of shots fired incidents — 253 in the first three months of the year was an increase of 25% from the four year average. The number of shooting victims, 69, was an increase of 27%, and the number of shootings was also up. And it continued to get worse as the year progressed.
There are many reasons for the increase. Stress caused by COVID-19 becomes more visible through domestic violence or arguments over trivial things like a parking space. One murder was a little close to home. I attend Calvary Lutheran Church in Federal Way, where one homeless person shot another homeless person because he thought the person had stolen his drugs. Our former pastor in a previous incident heard criticism from police suggesting that if we wouldn’t feed the homeless, they wouldn’t keep hanging around. However, isn’t that something a church should do — feed the homeless?
Our community keeps waiting for Federal Way city government to develop a plan to eliminate homelessness, but so far it has been King County with its Heath Through Housing program that is helping with housing, along with churches and non-profits who feed the homeless. Other pressures have emerged on families, including the loss of a job and lack of affordable housing.
But a new challenge has been the emergence of gangs fighting over turf. This has caused the four mayors to invite the county to join their talks, which the county has agreed to. But there are also risks in public discussions. All cities need to be careful with messaging to the public and to their businesses’ employees and customers.
Federal Way wants to have a retail element included because they are concerned about people walking out without paying, and businesses are fearful of their employees challenging non-payers. The support of the business community is needed for the sales tax they generate, and many businesses make their profit during the holiday season. Their shoppers need to feel safe while shopping, or they won’t shop in their city.
Some police have suggested that businesses hire private security staff. While that could provide temporary assistance, it does not relieve police departments of their responsibility to respond to situations quickly — and some departments like Federal Way have added more officers. At my church, we had talked about how to make our employees feel safe the week before the shooting. Police blamed the laws passed in the 2021 session as part of the problem. The mayors group will likely be present, and has suggested change for discussion. The county will be an essential part of the discussion.
Each city has its own ideas, but blaming past legislation isn’t a thoughtful answer. We need the best minds working together to come up with thoughtful solutions. Adding more police isn’t always the best answer. A report out of Tacoma suggests that civilians can do much of the work of police officers. Hiring social workers to team with police officers in domestic situations might be helpful. Kent has teamed officers with staff who know all the non-profits and how to link the homeless to their programs. Auburn hired a staff person who is tasked with finding housing for the homeless. He also works with the new Community Court to keep track of court dates for homeless people, who are unlikely to have regular mail service. Auburn also has a map of hot spots to avoid.
Even with buying hotels in each jurisdiction through King County’s Health Through Housing Program, it can still be a challenge as a town hall meeting in Federal Way turned up many people who are opposed to the program. Also it is a challenge to match housing with needs.
The increase of violence with guns needs attention, and some legislators have recently signaled their interest in curbing gun violence. Mayors, councilmembers, police chiefs and county prosecutors need to come to an agreement and cooperate on creative solutions for new legislation. And it needs to occur early in this legislative session before legislators get tired and want to get home to campaign.
Federal Way resident Bob Roegner is a former mayor of Auburn. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org.