Washington state sheriffs warn they have a public safety staffing crisis

New report paints a picture of rising violent crime amid an exodus of officers from the law enforcement profession.

Updated: July 21, 2022 - 6:05am

Police staffing levels in Washington have reached a crisis point, according to Steven D. Strachan, executive director of the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs. The Crime in Washington 2021 report, released today by the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs, paints a picture of rising violent crime amid an exodus of officers from the law enforcement profession.

“Certainly we have a staffing crisis,” WASPC executive director Steven D. Strachan said at a press conference today. “Not every agency is having a staffing crisis. Many are. The net loss of 495 officers in one year is indicative of a staffing crisis, and it’s not just Seattle PD.”

While the per capita murder rate remains lower than in the 1980s, the number of killings has spiked over the last two years. The number of murders increased 5.9% to 325 in 2021. The 302 murders reported in 2020 was increase of 46.6% over 2019 and the highest number of killings since 1994.

Violent crime overall increased 12.3 percent; robbery increased 10.0 percent, and aggravated assaults increased 15.4%, according to data compiled from 232 state, county, municipal, and Tribal agencies.

At the same time, policing agencies across the state saw a 4.4% reduction in the number of sworn officers in 2021. Together with the previous year’s drop, Washington now has 667 fewer deputies and police officers than in 2019, according to Strachan. With 1.38 officers per 1,000 people, the lowest ratio since statistics were first tracked in 1980, Washington is the least policed state in the union. The national average per capita rate is 2.33, according to FBI statistics.

The difficulty in both recruiting and retaining officers is attributable to a number of factors, according to Strachan, retirements, recent changes in criminal law, and the perception by many officers that they are unable to provide justice for victims of crime.

As evidence, Strachan pointed to a recent eight-hour period in King County when no facility had the capacity to process an arrestee, even for mandatory arrests such as in cases of domestic violence.

Strachan also cited the difficulty officers face in getting people with addiction or mental health issues into a treatment facility and frustration over seeing charges against criminals greatly reduced during prosecution. “They are looking victims in the face and they want to help them. When that doesn’t happen, that’s frustrating,” he said.

Strachan believes Washington can and should do better. “We’re not here to blame anybody,” Strachan said, adding, “Nobody should be okay with where we are in terms of violent crime and in terms of staffing. So how do we move forward?”

Supporting good policing, infrastructure, and officer wellness are keys to reversing what he called a vicious cycle of frustration and departures among officers.

The report also indicated a sharp decrease in drug crimes and identity theft last year. Drug offenses decreased 60.9%, and there was a 73.6% decrease in arrests related to drug use. Strachan attributed this mostly to the State Supreme Court’s Blake decision, which he said significantly reduced the ability of law enforcement to pursue criminal charges for the possession of any drug, including heroin, fentanyl, and methamphetamine.

Identity theft decreased by 78.8% in 2021, likely because the number had spiked in 2020 due to pandemic-related fraud in unemployment claims, according to Strachan.