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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Spokane-area violent crime up, drug arrests down in 2021: Here’s what law enforcement officials believe is behind the trends

The number of homicides in Spokane is in the double digits for the second-straight year.

Meanwhile, the Spokane County Sheriff’s Office has investigated more homicides this year than ever before in Spokane Valley.

Crime data from the Spokane Police Department shows city police have confirmed 13 homicides so far in 2021. Police are waiting on autopsy reports for several other deaths that could be reclassified as homicides before the year’s end.

The current total is thus far short of the 21 homicides recorded by city police in 2020. That year’s count was the highest since the 23 recorded in 2002, and nearly reached the 22 confirmed homicides recorded through all of 2017, 2018 and 2019 combined, according to police department data.

Violent crime documented by the Spokane Police Department through Dec. 11 – defined as homicides, rapes, robberies and assaults – is up roughly 10% compared to this point last year, trending back toward the approximately 1,500 of such cases recorded on average from 2017-20, according to an analysis of Spokane police CompStat reports by The Spokesman-Review.

Spokane Police Chief Craig Meidl believes a number of factors have contributed to the rise – including, he said, the decriminalization of simple drug possession in February by the Washington Supreme Court and side effects of a nationwide push to reduce jail populations.

“Violent crime is up, shootings are up and homicides are up across the nation,” Spokane police Chief Craig Meidl said.

Through November, Spokane County deputies recorded eight homicides this year out of Spokane Valley. Spokane County Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich said the previous record was around two or three.

The Sheriff’s Office’s first homicide case of the year outside the agency’s Valley jurisdictions opened earlier this month when 48-year-old Jeffrey Hayes was found dead from a gunshot wound on North Hayford Road in Airway Heights. Along with Spokane Valley, the agency covers the county save for entities that have their own law enforcement services: the City of Spokane, Airway Heights, Cheney, Liberty Lake and Fairchild Air Force Base.

Knezovich said the Sheriff’s Office has seen violent crime rise since last year when, to stem the spread of COVID-19, judges and attorneys in the local court system prioritized releases with lowered or no bail. A dynamic now exists where offenders “are not being held accountable,” he said.

“Our ability to do that rests with the ability of our deputies to make an arrest and have that individual actually stay in jail,” he said. “When you have criminal suspects literally look at you as you put them in the back of a patrol car and go, ‘I’ll be out in 72 hours,’ what message has been sent?”

Meidl said the police department reviews weekly reports on vehicle theft suspects throughout Spokane County. He said he has noticed some suspects released on their own recognizance are rearrested on new charges soon after – and then get released once again.

“Not all bail reform systems look exactly alike. There are different nuances to them,” the police chief said. “But one of the things that I’ve seen lacking in general terms is a lack of an in-depth evaluation of their prior criminal history to determine, ‘Is this person going to victimize the community again?’ ”

Through November, violent crime investigated by the Spokane County Sheriff’s Office – which the agency defines as homicides, manslaughters, rapes and assaults – are either flat or down from this point last year across all of the agency’s jurisdictions, according to November crime data.

There were 69 rape cases opened agencywide by the Sheriff’s Office through November compared to 73 to that point last year. Aggravated and simple assault cases in the Valley are also down upwards of 25% over last year, while assault cases elsewhere in the county are down at least 2%.

“I’m encouraged, but I’m not sold that’s actually happening,” Knezovich said. “If the homicide numbers weren’t trending the way they are, I’d be more likely to be sold. You can’t have this massive explosion in this type of violent crime and go, ‘Well, maybe it’s not so bad because you had a 25% decrease in (aggravated) assault.’ No.”

‘Yeah, you can possess drugs’

In most cases, Knezovich said deputies are not really looking into crimes based on drug possession “because we’re so tied up with the homicides.”

That, and their hands are largely tied following the state Supreme Court’s ruling in February that declared the state’s drug possession law unconstitutional. The majority of the court found the law improperly allowed a conviction even if the person prosecuted did not know they possessed drugs.

In response, state lawmakers – favoring expanded drug treatment and outreach over incarceration – passed a law in May to make simple drug possession a misdemeanor rather than a felony.

The November report by the Sheriff’s Office reflects the drop in enforcement. The Sheriff’s Office has recorded 162 drug crimes in 2021 through November, with most in January (68) and February (61), prior to the state Supreme Court ruling. That’s down from the 1,013 drug crimes recorded through all of 2020.

The highest monthly total since March was the six recorded that month. For November, the Sheriff’s Office identified just two drug-related offenses.

The sheriff said his deputies are “no longer effective at stopping the drug issue.”

“That’s what happens when a state says, ‘Yeah, you can possess drugs,’ ” Knezovich said. “We’re not arresting people for that at all unless you’re, like, dealing and have mass quantities. We’re really not working those cases right now because we’re so tied up on the homicides.

“It sends the message of, you better be careful of who you elect,” he continued. “State Legislature had a chance to fix all of this and didn’t.”

The Spokane Police Department has not made any drug arrests since the February ruling, Meidl said.

That’s because the city does not yet have an ordinance on the books to enforce the state’s new misdemeanor offense. The Spokane City Council voted unanimously Monday night to approve such an ordinance.

“If you’re 20 years old and you have a bag of meth on you, we’re going to take that meth and put it on property,” he said. “But if you’re 20 years old and you have a can of beer on you, I’m going to give you a misdemeanor citation for minor in possession of alcohol.”

Through the legislation, the first two times an individual would be subject to an arrest for low-level drug violations, law enforcement must instead offer a referral to drug treatment and other services instead of arresting or prosecuting that individual.

The city ordinance will now go to Mayor Nadine Woodward’s desk for final approval.

For his part, Meidl said he believes the decriminalization will lead to a spike in mental health issues as people continue to possess and take drugs without felony repercussions.

“The people I’m hearing from are very frustrated,” he said. “They’re not just seeing people that are shooting up in the open, (but) more and more of our businesses are dealing with people that are under the influence of drugs and all of the erratic behavior, and violent behavior, that goes along with that.”

Property crime down?

The amount of property crime recorded by the Spokane Police Department – defined as burglaries, larcenies, vehicle thefts and arsons – is down approximately 9% from this point last year.

In particular, larcenies totaled around 8,000 through Dec. 11, down from nearly 9,000 in 2020 and the roughly 10,000 on average seen between 2017 to 2020.

Meidl is not convinced property crime is truly down, however.

“We know for a fact, and it’s been that way for decades and decades, that crime is underreported. … The argument has to be, are more people underreporting now than they did a couple of years ago,” he said. “Based on the anecdotal stories I’m hearing and just based on my own observations of what I’m seeing out on the street, the reports I’m getting, the people who are telling me that (they) don’t bother reporting it because I know you guys do not have the capacity to do follow-up, I don’t for a minute feel like our larcenies are down.”

Likewise, the 732 residential burglaries and 414 garage burglaries seen through Dec. 11 are down from pre-pandemic levels that averaged 940 and approximately 592, respectively, from 2017 to 2019. Along with patrol work focused in recent years at reducing property crime, police said home burglaries are down due to the COVID-19 pandemic, as people are at home more.

Commercial burglaries, however, are trending just slightly higher than historical totals, with 473 to date compared to approximately 460 on average recorded from 2017 to 2020, according to police department data.

“I think if you were to talk with our officers who are out dealing with not only our victims, but the witnesses and the suspects when we catch them, a majority of our property crime is being driven by drug addictions,” Meidl said.

The 110 arsons recorded through Dec. 11 mark the police department’s highest total in the last five years.

This continues a trend seen last year, during which the 107 arsons recorded were 132% higher than 2019’s total. The police department recorded approximately 50 arson cases on average from 2017 to 2019.

Both Meidl and Julie Humphreys, Spokane police spokeswoman, said the increase stems largely from minor fires, such as dumpster fires.

And while he acknowledged it’s not the whole picture, Meidl said part of that is from homeless individuals who light fires that end up causing some level of smoke or fire damage.