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This column reflects the opinion of the writer. Learn about the differences between a news story and an opinion column.

Opinion >  Column

Shawn Vestal: Sound, necessary police reforms did not cause shootings

Local crime scene investigators work the area where a standoff between a man in a van and Spokane law enforcement officers ended with a shooting that left the suspect dead Wednesday at 611 W. Third Ave.  (COLIN MULVANY/THE SPOKESMAN-REVI)
Local crime scene investigators work the area where a standoff between a man in a van and Spokane law enforcement officers ended with a shooting that left the suspect dead Wednesday at 611 W. Third Ave. (COLIN MULVANY/THE SPOKESMAN-REVI)

In 2021, the Washington Legislature passed a suite of police reform laws – developed in conjunction with city and police officials – that certain law enforcement leaders have been hollering about since.

These reforms did a number of things: They eliminated the use of neck restraints; they put limits on the ability of police to engage in high-speed chases (limits that were already in place as a liability-avoidance policy in our city, for what it’s worth); they required officers to intervene when a fellow officer engages in misconduct; they created a statewide database to track uses of force.

Then, to hear Mayor Nadine Woodward tell it, the reign of “legislated lawlessness” began.

She’s not alone in this by any means. The reforms were resisted mightily by some law enforcement leaders statewide, including our own police chief and sheriff. Conservatives in the Legislature decried them continually. The reforms have been frequently blamed for recent increases in crime and sometimes for individual crimes specifically.

The criticisms approach the hysterical, as if we’ve descended into some kind of “Escape from New York” sequel because police can’t do their jobs and a widespread permissiveness has taken hold. Homelessness is usually lumped in with this narrative, conflated directly with – and often confused directly for – crime itself.

And this blame is deployed even when there doesn’t seem to be a sliver of connection between a given crime and the reforms.

That’s what happened earlier this month after police fatally shot a suspect after a five-hour standoff at Sheridan Street and Third Avenue. The suspect and two accomplices had robbed two other men at a Spokane Valley hotel room. They then fled in a van; two of these men got out of the van and ran, and police caught them. The driver, Dominic Shears, then took off, eventually crashing into a business.

He shot at police, and then barricaded himself inside the van for hours. When he eventually emerged holding a gun, police say, four city cops and one sheriff’s deputy shot him to death.

Woodward issued a news release calling for an end to “legislated lawlessness,” referring to this incident and another recent case – the appalling drive-by shooting of a Spokane officer.

The supposed influence of the legislative reforms in these cases was not apparent in any way. No use of force was limited in either instance. No limit on the cops’ ability to chase was apparent. No officer was required to prevent a fellow officer from using excessive force. Nothing – and I mean nothing whatsoever now in the public record – indicated any connection to the new laws.

Still, the mayor knew who to blame.

I wrote to the mayor’s spokesman to ask for a fuller explanation: How, exactly, was this lawlessness legislated?

Brian Coddington responded by noting that there are some details of the cases that are still not public, but said the mayor was chiefly referring to “the totality of the legislation and the environment it is creating among the criminal element in our community.”

He expanded on this at greater length, and we’re publishing that answer alongside this column.

The gist of it is that there has been a loss of respect for police officers that stems back to these reforms. Coddington also mentioned the fact that officers are concerned that they can no longer make arrests for simple drug possession – which stems from a Supreme Court case though it’s true that the Legislature did not recriminalize drug possession. He said some criminals believe they will be quickly released from jail and not held accountable – also not a legislative matter.

These crimes were awful. The people who committed them now face a reckoning. One of them, recall, was shot to death.

Did these criminals develop a sudden lack of respect for police last winter, do you think? Were young men who would brazenly fire guns at the cops groomed into their disdain for police by the dastardly House Bill 1054?

If we bring back the chokehold, will the lawlessness end?

Of course not.

Crime is a difficult matter to evaluate. Lots of us have specific lenses through which we view – and distort – the problem and develop our explanations for why things happen. People seize on single incidents to advance a political argument, or latch onto short-term crime trends and rush to identify a simple cause.

Sometimes, when the facts don’t confirm our beliefs, we don’t believe them. I wrote last September about our city’s gradual, five-year decline in property crime reports. This was simply a fact – based on the city’s own crime statistics. Several people, mostly from the anti-homeless brigade downtown, scoffed, insisting these figures simply could not be true.

Since then, unfortunately, property crime reports have gone up significantly. Overall, crime reports year-to-date are up 25% over last year in the most recent report from Spokane Police Department; violent crime is up 3%. The biggest single change is a huge jump in car thefts.

These trends are going in the wrong direction, for sure.

But if you think you can identify the cause as something that was signed on the governor’s desk in the spring of 2021, your explanation has to account for the fact that the total number of crimes reported this year as of last week is almost exactly the same as it was at the same point in 2019.

And it’s significantly lower than it was in 2018.

And lower still – 18% lower! – than it was in 2017. (That’s 11,051 total crimes reported to SPD by Aug. 5, 2017, compared to 9,085 reported to SPD by Aug. 6 of this year.)

Who was responsible for the lawlessness then? What explains that higher number of crimes, violent and nonviolent, back in the day when the criminal element had more respect for the police?

Nationally, we are seeing a rising number of homicides. You hear variations on the mayor’s message with regard to those, as well – the idea that this is a blue-state, urban trend, caused by a failure to respect the police sufficiently. But what explains the fact that red-state crime rates are soaring as well?

The think tank Third Way looked at homicide rates by state in 2020 and found that they were 40% higher in states that voted for Trump than in those that didn’t.

“Of the 10 states with the highest 2020 per capita murder rates in America,” wrote Third Way’s Jim Kessler, “eight of them not only voted for Trump in 2016 and 2020, they voted Republican in every presidential election this century.”

Does that explain our current wave of lawlessness? Is it Trump’s fault? Of course not. No simple, single, partisan answer satisfies this complicated question.

Improving police accountability and trust are absolutely necessary. The reform package was a sound response to legitimate concerns. But simply saying so has been viewed by some law enforcement leaders as an attack – a rhetorical aiding and abetting of the criminal element.

That’s nonsense. These recent crimes were appalling, but the lawlessness did not come from these laws.

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