Crime doesn’t pay, the old saying goes. But taxpayers might have to pony up a bit to address rising illegal activity.
According to a recent Crosscut/Elway poll, public safety issues including crime, drugs and police reform were No. 3 on respondents’ list of the top five issues facing Washington voters, behind the economy and homelessness.
It underscores the need for public officials to take seriously crime and the impact it has on residents’ peace of mind and confidence in their communities.
The recently released annual report from the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs showed that overall, crime in Washington fell 3.7 percent in 2021, as compared with 2020. However, violent crime increased. As The Columbian’s Becca Robbins reported, the state had a record number of murders in 2021 — 325. Hate crimes were up 26 percent; there was a 10 percent jump in robberies and a 15 percent increase in aggravated assaults, Robbins reported.
Pouring salt on the wound, the state had 495 fewer law enforcement officers in 2021 than in 2020, while the state’s population grew by 116,000.
According to the report, the national staffing average is 2.33 officers per 1,000 people. In Washington, that figure in 2021 was 1.38 per 1,000. In Clark County, alarmingly, the average is just 1.19 officers per 1,000 people.
There is disagreement about why some law enforcement agencies are struggling to attract and retain personnel. Pay is one factor, experts say, while others blame in part the Legislature’s efforts to address use of force, which critics claim hamstring officers and fan disrespect that’s lingering following the murder of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police.
But other factors are also at play. Gov. Jay Inslee has proposed expanding the state’s law enforcement training campus in an effort to address officer shortages and improve agencies’ ability to recruit and retain personnel. Instead of relying solely on the state’s only law enforcement training facility, in Burien, Inslee wants to create regional facilities so potential officers can train closer to home.
“Currently, recruits must attend training just at this location. They’ve got to travel; they’ve got to be away from their homes and their families,” the governor said. “This has created a logjam in the process. It creates a barrier to recruitment of fine people, and we need to do better.”
Another step Clark County voters need to take is to support the sheriff’s office and public safety in general by approving the one-tenth of 1 percent sales tax increase on the Aug. 2 ballot. It will provide money for the sheriff’s office’s body and dashcam program, as well as boost efforts to increase staffing.
The Clark County Council must also do its part. Its reticence to impose the annual 1 percent property tax hike has left the sheriff’s office unable to keep up with other agencies’ salaries. For instance, according to the county’s human resources website, the starting pay for a sheriff’s deputy is $30.25 per hour, or roughly $5,243 per month. The Vancouver Police Department’s salary for an officer is $6,301-$8,444 per month. Plus it offers a “hiring incentive” of $10,000 for entry officers and $25,000 to lateral officers.
Rising crime is a complex problem that must include discussions about mental health and addiction, as well as the Clark County Jail. But unquestionably, more officers are needed. And so while crime may not pay, Clark County residents are going to have to if we want to ensure our communities’ safety.