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Pierce County prosecutor calls for state to change drug, police pursuit laws

Prosecuting attorney Mary Robnett is calling on the state legislature to take another look at its policies on drugs and law enforcement due to rising crime numbers

TACOMA, Wash. — As the state legislature wraps up its second day, Pierce County Prosecuting Attorney Mary Robnett is calling for some changes.

Robnett wrote a letter last November stating that the reforms of 2021 have led to a growing sense of lawlessness in Pierce County.

“We’re dealing with crime rates here in Tacoma that are increasing astronomically,” she said.

So far, 16 mayors have signed onto Robnett’s letter, but Victoria Woodards, mayor of Pierce County’s largest city, Tacoma, still has not signed on.

Woodards said she didn’t see the letter until a few weeks after it was already sent out, but wanted to consult with the Tacoma City Council before making a final decision.

However, she did have thoughts about the prosecuting attorney’s letter.

Robnett’s letter focuses on two major policies that she ties to the county’s crime spike: police vehicle pursuits and drug possession.

Robnett argues that due to HB 1054, which prohibits most police pursuits, criminals have become emboldened because they feel they can’t be chased, leading to unsolved crimes.

However, Woodards says Tacoma’s policy on police pursuits is clear.

“We don’t do pursuits in the city unless the person who is running away is a danger to themselves or others,” Woodards said. “We actually just settled a lawsuit that came from someone getting hurt because of a chase. So I understand the need to pursue, and I think there are times when it’s necessary, but I don’t believe it should be the go-to response because pursuing someone can actually cause harm to innocent bystanders.”

Robnett also highlighted the 2021 Blake decision from the State’s Supreme Court. She said the decision has made Washington’s drug policies obsolete, which is problematic when it comes to drugs like methamphetamine, heroin, and fentanyl.

“When they ruled that the possession of narcotics statute was unconstitutional, it effectively legalized drugs. It made the drug laws unenforceable,” Robnett said. “The legislature did do a temporary fix for that, but that’s scheduled to sunset this summer, and unless the legislature does something this year, drugs are effectively going to be legal in the state of Washington.”

Mayor Woodards said she understands the need to address rising crime in Tacoma, but argues the impact of the pandemic can’t be discounted, and that a broader approach is necessary.

“We also need to recruit more police officers, we also need to look at the mental health of our community, and be able to have more opportunities for people to get the help they need,” she said. “I think it’s much bigger and there are root causes that cause the increase in crime that we’re seeing.“

Robnett says she’s willing to hear feedback from Mayor Woodards or anyone else about what can be done to address this potential oversight in the state’s drug laws.

But she insists something must be done to make sure those who need help get it.

"I know that there are critics who say that people who suffer from addiction and use and possess these substances shouldn't necessarily be convicted felons, and I understand that argument," she said. "But it takes a felony to get people into drug court. Misdemeanor charges aren't leverage enough for people to be interested in treatment...I'm not dead set on turning these folks into convicted felons, but we do need some way to get them into treatment and get them help."

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