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Dec. 2, 2023

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Report finds more violent crime, fewer officers in Washington

State has lowest officer-per-capita ratio in U.S.

By , Columbian staff reporter
3 Photos
Steven Strachan, the executive director of the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs, talks about the organization's annual crime report for 2021.
Steven Strachan, the executive director of the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs, talks about the organization's annual crime report for 2021. Although the report shows a decrease in overall crime, Strachan noted a 12 percent increase in violent crime compared with 2020. Photo Gallery

A statewide crime report released Wednesday shows an increase in violent crimes in 2021, alongside declining law enforcement staffing that secured Washington’s ranking as the state with the lowest officer-per-capita ratio in the nation.

The 580-page annual report, assembled by the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs using local law enforcement agency data, showed an overall decline of 3.7 percent in crime statewide compared with 2020.

Steven Strachan, the executive director of the organization, said Wednesday that decrease was driven by sharp reductions in fraud and drug charges. Fraud rates spiked in 2020 with people reporting misuse of COVID-19 pandemic-related assistance and unemployment programs.

Dramatically fewer drug charges were referred to prosecutors last year after the state Supreme Court’s Blake ruling in February 2021, which decided that the state’s drug-possession law was unconstitutional.

The state saw record-high murders last year at 325, according to the report. This number outpaces the previous record of 302, set in 2020.

However, after the state added 116,000 residents last year, the murder rate adjusted for population means there were more murders per capita in the mid-1990s and late 1980s.

With the rising population, Strachan noted an alarming decrease in law enforcement officers. Last year, the state had 495 fewer officers than in 2020, and 2020 also saw a loss of 172 officers compared with 2019.

“In 2021, the state of Washington added a population equivalent to the entire city of Everett, and at the same time, 495 fewer officers are available to respond to calls,” Strachan said.

The national average of officers per 1,000 people is 2.33, according to Strachan, yet Washington’s rate continued to fall to 1.38 last year. Oregon’s rate was the second lowest in the country at 1.48 officers per 1,000 people, according to data shared by the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs.

Clark County’s rate remained practically unchanged from 2020 to 2021, although still below the state rate, at 0.87 officers per 1,000 residents.

‘How do we move forward?’

Violent crime increased by 12 percent over 2020, including a 10 percent spike in robberies and 15 percent increase in aggravated assaults, according to the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs.

Domestic violence offenses increased last year compared with the previous year, with 1,519 more incidents reported. The state saw six more domestic violence homicides last year, including six in Clark County.

Hate crimes also increased across the state by 26 percent in 2021 compared with 2020. Although most hate crimes involve intimidation and threats, Strachan noted an increase in hate crimes involving assault.

“The category of hate crimes is one where it’s very important that the law enforcement agencies are aware of and well trained in how to recognize and report hate crimes. That training continues to grow and to be built into the infrastructure of training for almost every agency,” he said. “Part of the issue related to hate crimes is the ability and the comfort level of reporting, so we will continue to focus on that.”

In Clark County, 116 hate crimes were reported last year, with 111 of them reported to Vancouver police, the report shows. Forty-four of the incidents were anti-Black, the report states, followed by 13 anti-Hispanic crimes and 12 anti-gay incidents. One anti-Jewish hate crime was reported to Camas police.

Strachan also noted a 27 percent increase in motor vehicle thefts last year over 2020 and 100 percent increase in theft of motor vehicle parts. Law enforcement agencies across the state have attempted to crack down on vehicle theft, and the Legislature has funneled additional funding to agencies to prioritize those efforts.

Last year’s data will inform conversations that Strachan’s organization intends to have with state legislators about future police reform or funding.

“Having been in law enforcement for well over three decades, I’ve learned that there is never one single reason for crime to go up or down. I think common sense dictates that some of the concerns raised by law enforcement the past two years over changes in laws certainly has some relationship to some of these numbers,” Strachan said. “We’re not here to blame anybody for that. We are here to figure out, here’s the actual numbers — nobody should be OK with where we are right now, in terms of violent crime, and in terms of staffing, so how do we move forward?”

The data also shows a slight decrease in incidents of officers who were assaulted compared with 2020. Of the 1,968 incidents in which officers were assaulted, 79 resulted in an officer being injured. About 72 percent of incidents involved people using their hands or feet to assault an officer, the report states.

Correction: Clark County’s law enforcement officer rate was incorrectly stated in an earlier version of this story.

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