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South King County mayors ask for help in fight against crime

Mayors in Auburn, Black Diamond, Enumclaw, Federal Way, Kent, Pacific, Renton and Tukwila are pleading for help.

KING COUNTY, Wash. — Eight mayors in south King County signed an open letter Thursday asking for help in the effort to reduce crime and violence.

However, at least one of the claims they made is receiving pushback from county leadership.

The mayors of Auburn, Black Diamond, Enumclaw, Federal Way, Kent, Pacific, Renton and Tukwila are pleading for help from King County and the state as the cities see a "disturbing" rise in crime.

"We really need to provide a higher level of public safety. Our community is demanding it," said Renton Mayor Armondo Pavone.

Four of the mayors who signed the public plea told KING 5 it was important for them to band together for people who live in various cities in south King County.

"Nobody knows where one city begins, and another ends. Nobody cares. They just want to feel safe," Auburn Mayor Nancy Backus said.

According to the letter, the rise in crime coincides with several events, including the passage of Senate Bill 5476, which prevents cities and counties from charging someone with drug possession in certain cases. The passage of House Bill 1054, which prevents police officers from conducting vehicle pursuits in certain circumstances, is also a factor, according to the letter.

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Federal Way Mayor Jim Ferrell, who is running for King County prosecutor this November, said many criminals know they can get away with it.

"I mean, that's why car thefts statewide have gone up 88% in one year," Ferrell said.

Along with citing an "influx" in methamphetamine and fentanyl, the letter criticizes the justice system, "in which it takes many months, if not years, for criminal charges to be filed, resolved, or tried."

There is also a need "for improved and timely juvenile and adult felony criminal accountability at the county level," the letter states.

The letter specifically calls out the King County Jail system, alleging it does not allow for the booking of felony suspects on a routine basis and, due to limitations on bookings, officers spend hours transporting and booking suspects.

Kent Mayor Dana Ralph pointed to the Norm Maleng Regional Justice Center in Kent, which is no longer taking in regular felony bookings due to staffing shortages, according to Ralph. Instead, the letter said officers are forced to take felony suspects to the jail in Seattle.

"The biggest problem is when you take an officer off the streets for four hours, in a department that is already significantly understaffed, it becomes a public safety issue," they said.

In a statement, Chase Gallagher, director of communications for King County Executive Dow Constantine's office, called the assertion regarding jail bookings "hyperbole."

"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," the statement reads. "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."

Though the concerned city leaders have had meetings with King County and state legislators to help solve the issues, the "consequences of the challenges to our system are real and immediate," the letter states.

The letter asks the county and state to take action to address the toll increased crime is taking on the communities.

KING 5 reached out to Gov. Jay Inslee's Office and Constantine's office for comment:

Reponses from Governor's Office, King County executive

A spokesperson from Inslee's office said they had not received the letter prior to KING 5's inquiry, as it was not specifically addressed to that office. The letter was still being reviewed on Thursday afternoon. 

On the topic in general, however, a spokesperson for Inslee's office wrote the problem "is not unique to us."

"It’s a phenomenon happening nationwide. As the Brennan Center for Justice says, 'The recent rise in crime is extraordinarily complex. Policymakers and the public should not jump to conclusions or expect easy answers,'” the statement reads.

It continues:

"Solving the challenges facing our law enforcement and criminal justice system requires collaboration between partners at the federal, state, county and municipal level. The state will continue its part by listening to local partners to promote safety and share resources that address the root causes of violence and crime. 

"Last month, the governor unveiled a proposal to increase police training opportunities statewide to make more candidates available for open officer positions in local departments. Since 2016, the state has increased pay for state troopers by 40%. The state has made significant investments in behavioral health services, rapid supportive housing, intervention programs for youth, and diversion programs for first-time and low-level offenders. 

"We all share a desire for communities that are safe."

The full statement from Constantine's office reads as follows:

"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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