There is a strong feeling among residents that property crime rates are rising on the Key Peninsula and that law enforcement appears to be unwilling or unable to apprehend and detain suspects.
Home resident Kelly Gamble, who started the Facebook KP Crime Watch page several years ago, said that property crime is on the rise. “Everyone seems to know who the bad guys are. If you sit at the Home store for an hour, you’ll see many drug deals. They are blatant because they can’t be arrested for a non-violent crime,” she said.
Jenn Lettelier, who has lived in Home for four years, has noticed a big increase in theft and vandalism in the last two years. Neighbors have had car windows broken. “To me that means it was someone on drugs and really desperate,” she said. “If you leave stuff out here someone is going to steal it.”
“I am not prone to rhetoric, but there is a creeping sense of lawlessness that we are all living with right now,” said Pierce County Prosecutor Mary Robnett. “I share the perception that crime is up. But I am cognizant that there is a lot more chatter about it on social media and 24/7 wall-to-wall coverage on TV about crime all over the country.”
Crime statistics show no significant change in the Peninsula District, which includes both Gig Harbor and the Key Peninsula, over the last five years according to Darren Moss, the Pierce County Sheriff’s Department communications director. Calls to the department from the area are at their usual number of about 500 to 600 a month.
For the county as a whole, crime rates are at normal or slightly lower levels compared to the five-year average, with the exceptions of commercial robberies (up 26%), vehicle prowls (up 16%) and vehicle theft (up 44%). Vehicle theft on the Key Peninsula is up 34%.
Robnett said that pandemic-related health concerns for both inmates and staff limited bookings to Class A felonies, domestic violence and DUI arrests. For those offenses, charges are filed, and the suspect is booked and arraigned the next day. All other cases are sent to her office as out-of-custody referrals where suspects are not jailed; the office reviews the case and decides what charges to file, if any.
COVID-19 closed the courts from spring of 2020 until this fall. “When the courts reopened, we had 1,300 out-of-custody cases to file,” Robnett said. “By the end of the year all of the cases will be filed and for our office there is no more Covid backlog.”
“The biggest stressor on law enforcement in our state right now has been shutting down jails,” Moss said. “If they actually get into the jail, it might deter them a little more.”
Bail reform also led to less incarceration. Bail has a disproportionate effect on people with low incomes and the intention was to require bail only for those at flight risk or who present a risk to the community. As a result, Robnett said, more people are being released on their own recognizance.
Recent legislation, House Bills 1054 and 1310, changed how law enforcement officers could respond to calls, leading to complaints that their “hands were tied.”
Moss said the main impact of HB 1054, which places restrictions on certain tactics, including neck restraints and vehicular pursuits, is that law enforcement cannot pursue vehicles for offenses other than vehicular assault, vehicular homicide or driving under the influence.
“Auto theft is going crazy,” Moss said. “People get good at it and steal over and over. We can’t chase a car because it is stolen, so it’s easier to get away and if they are caught, they can’t get booked.”
Robnett was critical of HB 1310, which adopted a statewide de-escalation standard and limited the use of force only to protect against an imminent threat of serious physical injury or death to the officer or another person. It also limited use of force to situations when there was probable cause to make an arrest. She said the intent of the legislation was laudable, but that the law did not clearly define force. The Pierce County Sheriff’s definition of force includes touch and strong language.
In addition, in the early stages of an investigation, before all the facts are gathered, officers are working at the level of reasonable suspicion and not probable cause. Officers could not detain or restrain suspects in that situation.
Rep. Roger Goodman (D-Kirkland), chair of the House Public Safety Committee, said he has met with stakeholders up and down the I-5 corridor to get feedback about what needs to be changed.
“They are all saying the same thing,” he said. “It is about being able to help people in mental health crisis and protect children and respond to serious crimes. We need to provide both the police and the public with the certainty they need as to how these laws work.”
Goodman said that he is considering changing the standard for use of force from probable cause to reasonable suspicion when police are investigating violent offenses, especially domestic violence. “We want officers to be able to restrain parties before they figure out who did what to whom.”
Noting that last year two of three on-the-job deaths of officers took place during car chases, he said he does not plan to make changes in the language around vehicular pursuits.
Moss said that of the calls the Sheriff’s Department receives, only 1% are for violent crimes. “The biggest thing I would tell people right now, is that the numbers are just numbers and overall, the world is not coming to an end and the Sheriff’s Department is not going away,” Moss said. “We are still responding to calls, doing our job, going out to find people who are committing crimes.”
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