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News / Northwest

Man in the middle: Ferguson tries to strike a balance on policing

Democratic attorney general running for governor

By Bill Lucia, Washington State Standard
Published: March 25, 2024, 6:43pm

When a candidate is running for election, they’ll often seize on an issue when they sense they have the upper hand. Or they might go on the offensive in an area where they think they’re vulnerable. Other times a subject looms so large they want to be quick to confront it.

Which scenario best characterizes Attorney General Bob Ferguson’s first major policy proposals in the 2024 governor’s race may depend on one’s political views but should become clearer as this year’s election unfolds. Ferguson, a Democrat and frontrunner in the contest, released his “plan to improve community safety” last week.

He proposes spending $100 million on grants to help local governments recruit more officers, hiring additional state troopers and ramping up Department of Corrections efforts to track down at-large offenders with active arrest warrants.

The plan has other elements as well, like increasing state funding for drug task forces to fight fentanyl trafficking and establishing a firearm buy-back program. But the “cornerstone,” as his campaign tells it, is hiring more police officers.

‘I look forward to a debate’

Ferguson thinks he has an edge on public safety, pointing to his office’s work during the past 12 years on issues like combatting retail theft, clearing out the state’s rape test kit backlog, locking up sex offenders, and winning over a billion dollars in opioid industry legal settlements.

On the other hand, one of his leading opponents used to be a cop: Republican Dave Reichert, the former King County sheriff known for catching the Green River Killer before he went on to a 14-year stint in Congress. Reichert is painting a dark picture of public safety in Washington, arguing that the state has “become a haven for crime.”

Republicans in the Legislature, meanwhile, also contend the state has become less safe under Democrats, who’ve controlled both chambers of the Legislature and the governor’s office for about six years. They point to rising violent crime rates and skyrocketing fatalities from fentanyl overdoses to make their case. They, too, want to hire more police.

Ferguson, in an interview on Friday, swerved around questions about whether his party is weak on public safety heading into the 2024 elections. “I’ll let others talk about what they think in terms of the party,” he said. “I’m focused on my record.” And he shrugged off Reichert. “I look forward to a debate with Dave Reichert on public safety,” he said. “I look forward to that.”

‘Existential question’

There’s something else worth noting here. Ferguson’s embrace of a pro-law enforcement platform comes on the heels of a session when most legislation pushed by police accountability advocates failed, including a bill that would’ve blocked police from lying about evidence when interrogating suspects.

Another bill that sank would’ve bestowed more power to Ferguson’s agency to prosecute deadly police use-of-force incidents. He said he supports the concept but is “not as excited about” housing this special prosecutor division in the Attorney General’s Office. Doing so, he said, would run contrary to a state task force recommendation that such a prosecutor be separate from other law enforcement agencies.

Ferguson in his plan pledges support for more police training, wider use of police body cameras, expanding civilian response teams, and promoting community-based policing. But he doesn’t lead with a list of tough, new police accountability measures and he promises to “use the bully pulpit” of the governor’s office “to highlight good works by law enforcement across the state.”

Never known as a crusader on his party’s left flank, he’s planting a flag on policing that puts him nearer to the middle of the political spectrum these days.

And he’s doing it at a time when tension is building among Democrats in Olympia as progressives try to yank the House and Senate caucuses further leftward on a range of issues, including police reform. It’s a dynamic certain to ratchet up as longtime lawmakers retire or run for higher office and newer members vie for powerful leadership positions.

“I think their caucus is going to be facing an existential question soon,” House Minority Leader Drew Stokesbary, R-Auburn, said in a recent interview. “The question is going to be: do they want to pass good policy? Or do they want to pass things that make the far left happy and that get a lot of national headlines but that aren’t very well thought out?”

This is in the backdrop as Ferguson rolls out his plan. And to secure more funding to hire police, if elected governor, he’ll need to convince Democrats in the Legislature to go along.

He emphasizes that Washington ranks last in the country in the number of law enforcement personnel per capita. The Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs, a leading law enforcement voice in Olympia, made the same point in an annual crime report that contained statistics showing murders reached a record high and auto thefts soared in Washington in 2022.

“I was at a fundraiser in downtown Seattle last night with 50 folks,” Ferguson told the Standard on Friday. “I mentioned that statistic as part of my stump speech. And the reaction is almost always the same: Surprise number one. And a feeling that it is not okay, and it needs to change.”

‘Willing to disagree’

That reaction may skew differently in other Democratic-leaning settings. Police reform advocates and others frown on how the police-per-capita metric gets cited by proponents of hiring more police. They can highlight findings that call into question whether more officers lead to less crime and that suggest officers don’t spend much of their time solving serious offenses.

“We have the most over-policed civilization in the world,” David Owens, a University of Washington law professor who specializes in civil rights and police issues told the Standard last year. “It seems to me the answer is always just, ‘We need more police. We need more, we need more, we need more.’ But why? Are we using all of them effectively?”

Ferguson sees it somewhat differently.

“The notion that more law enforcement officers won’t assist us in keeping our community safe. I mean, I just, I’m willing to disagree with that,” he said. “Having more eyes on the streets, having more folks to assist, having more folks to address criminal justice issues day-to-day. That makes sense to me.”

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