Commentary: Back to normal? Not for Washington when it comes to crime


On Tuesday down in Olympia, in a hearing about the crime surge that swamped America during the pandemic, the committee chairman said he had one big question.

"I want to frame this around what was happening before the pandemic ... and then what is happening now, after the pandemic," said state Rep. Roger Goodman, D-Kirkland. "We had this huge disruption in society. ... So here in Washington state, are we getting back to normal?"

The answer from a group of criminology experts was, unfortunately, a resounding "no."

Other places are, they said. Other states and cities are heading in the right direction, with major drops in homicide and other violent crimes. In fact in 2023 so far, the biggest cities are seeing "one of the largest homicide declines ever recorded nationally," a drop of more than 12%, said Jeff Asher, of AH Datalytics, a crime analysis firm.

"We're seeing gun violence declining almost everywhere," Asher told Washington state lawmakers. "We're seeing it on the West Coast, the East Coast, small places and big places."

But conspicuously, not here.

"Seattle has had a sizable increase in murders," he said — up 19% so far compared with last year, which itself was the worst for homicides in 25 years. Shootings are on roughly the same pace as in 2022 — though that year was the worst by far since Seattle began tracking shots fired in 2012.

Compared with before the pandemic, Washington is now a different world crimewise, suggested Marshall Clement of the Council of State Governments. He presented a new report showing that since 2019, the violent crime rate has risen more here, 26%, than in any state except Colorado.

Homicide statewide is up 89% since pre-pandemic, one shocking slide showed.

"You can see that Washington is unlike a lot of states," he understated as he showed a map of crime changes, with Washington standing out as a dark purple blotch (lighter was better).

One slide presented was titled "The Washington Story." It showed that after decades of our state ranking well below the national average for violent crime, we've caught up just in the last three years. The murder rate is catching up, too. The takeaway: Washington was safer than the rest of the nation, but it isn't anymore.

Why would this be? The assembled lawmakers, part of the state House Community Safety, Justice, & Reentry Committee, didn't really ask. The crime experts could only speculate — one of them issued a blanket disclaimer that "anybody who tells you that they know why crime has gone up is fooling you."

Most of the theories related back to 2020, to the dislocations of both the pandemic and the anti-police movement following the killing of George Floyd. Police staffing dropped, the social safety net unraveled, gun sales soared, schools and other community institutions were shuttered, and so on.

Two of the experts fixated on a much simpler issue: Police aren't solving as many crimes as they used to.

Clement said that 47% of murders went unsolved in Washington in 2022, along with 55% of aggravated assaults and 74% of robberies.

"There's been huge declines in arrests, huge decline in stops — what you might call 'de-policing,'" Asher said. "That was accompanied by a large-scale decline in police legitimacy."

Asher said low arrest and case resolution rates are being seen nationally as well, so it isn't known whether it's a main factor in Washington's rising crime or not.

State data from a decade ago shows the Seattle Police Department cleared 21.7% of its cases, including property crimes. ("Cleared" generally means someone was arrested and referred for charges.) In 2022 only 12.5% were cleared. That 9 percentage point difference equals more than 6,000 cases going unsolved in Seattle, in a single year.

As an example, in 2012 SPD made an arrest in 51% of all aggravated assault cases. This past year, they made arrests in only 23% of aggravated assaults. That's a huge number of serious crimes going unchallenged and unpunished.

The police have said they are simply understaffed. At a recent community meeting about gun violence in the Central Area, police said low staffing keeps them mostly responding to 911 calls, rather than doing much proactive work.

Each unsolved crime can have a compounding effect, Asher said, in that it tends to erode people's trust in the cops, and also can give tacit permission for others to commit crimes. A column he wrote this week in The New York Times about falling case clearance rates was titled "An Early Warning That Policing May Be in Decline."

All of this strikes me as one of those issues that's gotten a ton of attention, especially as election fodder, but little action. Nobody pushes the radioactive idea of defunding the police anymore. But neither have they settled on what to do instead.

We aren't back to normal, the committee heard Tuesday. So how should the state respond to our violent crime rates apparently getting reset to new, higher levels?

The committee adjourned without talking much about that. I'd suggest this is overdue to be a top issue for the coming state legislative session in January. Before not being back to normal gets accepted as the new normal.