By Pepper Fisher
PORT ANGELES – Overall crime in Washington State increased in 2020 according to an annual report released by the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs (WASPC).
The report tracks crime and arrest data from law enforcement agencies throughout Washington, including the Clallam County Sheriff’s Office, as well as the Sequim and Port Angeles Police Departments.
Statewide, reported murders were up almost 50% in 2020. Manslaughter was up 100%. It’s not all so glum. Drug and narcotic offenses and reported hate crimes were down slightly.
Here in Port Angeles, crime rates have steadily moved down in most categories over the last several years, but Chief Brian Smith says that trend may be difficult to sustain.
“2020 had some things drop in Port Angeles, and what’s hard to know; is that, you know, Covid related, or lack of access to the jail? Like, arrests were down significantly. They were over 60 percent down in 2020. Now that’s not a sustainable number. Like, we won’t operate as a police department with that arrest rate. Like, we’ll have to catch up. We’ll have people out there that have committed crime, have warrants, whatever. And as soon as we’re able to have full, say, access to the jail, our numbers are going to go up and they might be higher than they were before.”
Smith is concerned that statewide police reforms that went into effect in July are making the job of preventing crime before it happens more difficult.
“One number in there that went up is aggravated assault, went up almost 50%. I mean, that’s a troubling number. And like, that kind of violence is very hard to prevent, because that generally occurs amongst people that know each other. But what I’m seeing statewide is the trend is moving towards law enforcement being more reactive and less proactive. And in a sense, more passive and more reacting after it happens.”
Smith thinks proactive police work is being stifled by some of the reforms, and believes we’ll see some rise in crime as a result. One example is the bill that forbids any officer from engaging in a pursuit unless there is probable cause to believe an occupant of the vehicle has committed a violent offense, or there is reasonable suspicion that the driver is DUI.
“Many, many examples in police work, where we make a traffic stop because someone ran a red light in front of an officer, and then they discover the person has a felony warrant, there’s a firearm in the car, that person’s already got a felony conviction. And the thing that person was going to do in terms of their criminal activity, gets disrupted. And so that other thing doesn’t happen. If law enforcement is interrupting less things before they happen, you’ll see it in, like, a murder rate.”
Not helping matters is the fact that as the murder rate climbs dramatically, the average number of officers per 1,000 residents in Washington’s cities is dead last in the nation and going down each year. Port Angeles reflects the state average at 1.19 officers per 1,000 residents. Smith says some reforms are having the effect of lowering that average even more.
“They require more time and effort on our part. In some cases, we actually can’t do the things we did before. In other cases, we have to do a lot more work to accomplish the same thing. So again, the small numbers that we have are going to be diminished simply by the the impact of some of the laws on us and our work output.”
The 12 reform and accountability bills passed by lawmakers this year expected to go through some editing in next year’s legislative session.