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South King County mayors speak up about local crime

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Mayors in South King County are calling on state and local leaders to do more to address crime and drugs in their cities.

The mayors of Auburn, Black Diamond, Enumclaw, Federal Way, Kent, Pacific, Renton, and Tukwila detailed their concerns in an open letter last week. They say they are frustrated with recent legal reforms surrounding policing and drug laws. The mayor of Federal Way is currently running for King County prosecutor.

"King County cities are seeing a disturbing rise in violent crime, as well as drug offenses and property crimes including auto thefts, burglaries, and robberies. Our community of residents, businesses, and visitors – the victims of these crimes – are fed up and action is necessary," the letter states.

The letter continues to point out SB 5476, which offers drug offenders options for treatment; HB 1054 which restricts when an officer can pursue a suspect in a patrol car; and a range of other arguments around the current legal and jail system. The letter also notes that the mayors are in ongoing discussions with state leaders and the King County Prosecutor's Office, and the King County Executive.

They mayors, however, did not send a copy of the open letter to the Prosecutor’s Office, and that has the office's spokesperson, Casey McNerthy, questioning the motivation behind it. He said prosecuting attorneys currently are filing 20-30 felony charges a day.

“We’re charging drug dealing cases all the time," McNerthy said. "We’re charging a gun crime every day, multiple gun crimes every day.”

He added that police officers are referring fewer crimes to their office each year, because they can only charge cases with sufficient evidence. McNerthy said the prosecutor's office filed nearly 600 cases in July alone. He also pointed out that prosecutors are filing between 20-30 cases each day while violent crime and property crimes are a priority, and that this work never halted during the pandemic.

"What we're going to do is work with police every day like we have been. and we're going to work with community groups, and we're going to work with mayors, collaboratively, for long-term solutions," McNerthy said. "Not only for prosecuting crime, but also to get at the root causes that cause this crime, because that's how you get long-term, effective change."

Kent Mayor Dana Ralph told KUOW that the message wasn't intended as an "open letter."

“This wasn’t a letter, there seems to be some confusion,” Mayor Ralph said. “This was really more of an open statement, media release … because we’re just continuing to hear significant frustration on the part of residents with the follow up of, ‘Why aren’t you doing something?’

“So it’s about this entire system not functioning together and at the end of the day, that is resulting in our residents and businesses not being safe.”

In response to the open letter/statement, Executive Dow Constantine's office released its own statement:

"It is incumbent on officials in positions of public trust to rely on facts, not hyperbole as is the case with this assertion regarding jail bookings. Over the course of a single Sunday night in July, bookings were limited to only the highest priority cases so limited jail staff could prioritize safe operations in the jail. When that one-time limitation went into effect, jail staff continued to field calls from law enforcement and allowed them to bring in high priority cases in if needed, and in fact at least one jurisdiction did so.

"Public safety is at the top of our priorities, and that means holding people accountable while also addressing underlying causes. Every level of government has a role to play in solving the issues in our streets, which have been exacerbated by a criminal court backlog created by the pandemic, decades of an underfunded behavioral health system, and centuries of institutional racism. We will continue to partner with any government committed to working productively to deliver safety rather than clinging to obsolete practices and mindsets that no longer keep our communities safe."

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