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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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News >  Crime/Public Safety

Spokane’s police chief says police reform laws have led to more crime, but some argue the real reason is more nuanced

Property crime increased in Spokane since police reform laws took effect last summer, and those crimes and others will only worsen if those laws remain on the books, Spokane Police Department Chief Craig Meidl said at a press conference last week. But at least one Spokane City council member questioned that claim.

Meidl told reporters Thursday at the Public Safety Building in Spokane that burglaries and car thefts significantly increased from the period of Jan. 1, 2021, to July 24 – before the reform laws went into effect – to the period of July 25, 2021, to Dec. 31.

For example, vehicle thefts decreased 21.7% from Jan. 1, 2021 to July 24 compared to 2020, but then spiked 44% the rest of 2021 compared to 2020. Overall, car thefts decreased 15.7% in 2021 compared to 2018 to 2020, and increased 4.1% from 2020 to 2021.

“If we are not given back those tools and officers are not able to be proactive the same measure that they were, you’re going to continue to see these elevated numbers,” Meidl said.

Overall, all property crimes went down 14.3% in the first period of 2021 and then went up 2.3% in the second part of the year. Property crimes increased by about 10% while violent crimes decreased by about 9% from 2020 to 2021, according to Spokane police data.

But Spokane City Council President Breean Beggs said the sample size of Spokane Police’s data is “way too small,” and crime trends over the past few years should be examined instead.

“I reject completely the idea that any of the language changes last year led to more crime last year,” Beggs said.

Beggs said Meidl’s press conference fell during a week when bills were at a critical stage in the Legislature.

“I don’t think it’s a coincidence that of all the weeks in the year where he could report on this, he reports on it right when it’s at the critical point in the Legislature, which, you know, he can do that,” Beggs said. “It’s just that it undermines my confidence in it when the political game is kind of being played.”

Thursday marked the last day to pass bills out of committee and read them into the record on the floor from the opposite chamber. Monday is the last day to pass bills out of committee and read them into the record on the floor from House fiscal committees and Senate Ways & Means and Transportation committees.

Laws that passed last year limit vehicle pursuits to when an officer has probable cause, which has led to more people fleeing from officers and officers being confused on whether they have probable cause to arrest someone, Meidl said.

Meidl used a hypothetical domestic violence report as an example.

He said officers might spot a person who matches the description of the suspect while they are driving to the scene. Prior to the reform laws, officers were able to detain that person and conduct an investigation to potentially develop probable cause for an arrest.

Now, since they only have “reasonable suspicion” and not probable cause, that person could flee and officers are not allowed to stop the individual.

Lois James, an associate professor and assistant dean of research at the Washington State University College of Nursing, said there seems to be a feeling among officers that they’ve been so restricted – and sometimes uncertain – in what they are allowed to do that they disengage from a pursuit for fear of overstepping and finding themselves on the wrong side of state law.

Part of James’ focus is on performance in “high stress” populations, such as police officers, and she is a research adviser for the International Association of Chiefs of Police, according to WSU’s website. Part of her research has focused on the impact of bias on police decisions.

James said she understands the reasoning behind the new reform laws because of the many situations in which officers have overstepped their boundaries. But the unintended consequences of the policies are that they make officers’ jobs more difficult, and they feel like they’re unable to give victims of crime the support they would like because they cannot engage the same way.

“Police reform is desperately required, but policing as a function is also desperately required, so there has to be some kind of balance struck to void the more extreme abolitionist view, I suppose,” she said.

Meidl said he believes drivers often aren’t stopping for police because of the new laws.

“Our officers right now are telling us they’re seeing people fail to stop for traffic stops at unprecedented levels,” Meidl said.

Other statistics cited at the press conference:

  • Meidl said the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs noted that state vehicle thefts are up 50% since the new laws were implemented last year.
  • Commercial burglary lowered 13.5% the first part of last year and then rose 28.7% after July 24. Overall, it went up 4.8% from 2020 to 2021 and 8.4% in 2021 compared to the previous three-year average.
  • Residential burglary was down 14.8% during the first period of 2021 compared to 2020, but increased 6.4% in the second part of 2021. “There was a 20% gain in residential burglaries once those reform laws went into effect,” Meidl said.
  • Still, residential burglary declined 5.9% from 2020 to 2021 and went down 18.4% in 2021 compared to the three-year average of 2018 to 2020.

Meidl said some legislative bills would address issues he sees with the reform laws.

That bill, which passed in the Senate and is now in the House, would allow officers once again to engage in a car chase when there is reasonable suspicion a person has broken a law.

“We’re not looking to engage in more pursuits, but what has happened is it’s created an environment where everyone knows, I don’t need to stop and I can flee, and they absolutely are,” Meidl said.

State Rep. Marcus Riccelli, D-Spokane, said the House Public Safety Committee is working closely with stakeholders, including law enforcement officials and community members, to find the right balance between protecting the public from dangerous pursuits and stopping dangerous criminals from fleeing. He said he did not want to comment in depth on the bill because amendments were being made to it.

Riccelli said vehicular pursuits are extremely dangerous to officers, individuals being pursued and the general public, “so I do think they should be avoided whenever possible,” he said.

Besides the reform laws, Meidl said COVID-19 might be a reason for the increase in certain crimes.

He said mental health calls went up exponentially, at least in part because people were isolated due to the pandemic.

“It would not be unreasonable to attribute some of the increases in crime to what we’re also seeing with mental health as well,” he said. “People are getting frustrated, they’re getting angry, they’re getting scared, and I think that will manifest with certain people as criminal behavior.”

Meidl said detention facilities also needed to make sure inmates maintained proper distance with each other, which meant some people were released from jail sooner than they otherwise would have been, potentially leading to more crime.

Meanwhile, shootings have increased since 2018, and the new laws have made it more difficult to pursue those suspects as well, Meidl said.

But increases in violent crime are not specific to Washington. Murder rates spiked nationwide in 2020 and increased again in 2021 to the highest rate since the mid-1990s, according to the New York Times.

Drive-by shootings were down 2.4% in 2021 but up 30.9% compared to the three-year average of 2018 to 2020. Total shootings were up 60.6% in 2021 and spiked 148.9% last year compared to the average of the three previous years.

Meidl said he believes many of the shootings involve a very small group of people. Many of whom, if not most, are involved in gangs, he said.

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