Police commander: Prosecutor’s Office may as well be public defender
After an investigation by KIRO 7’s Deedee Sun that revealed the King County Prosecutor’s Office sometimes lessens felony charges or refuses to file them altogether for repeat offenders, Black Diamond Police Commander Larry Colagiovanni, who was featured in the piece, is speaking out about the lengths he has to go to to see criminals prosecuted.
“It’s almost like we’re filing cases with the public defender’s office because whenever I deal with the prosecutor’s office, it’s almost like they’re looking for reasons not to file your case,” he told KIRO Radio’s Dori Monson.
He commented that his officers sometimes want to give up even trying to file cases as felonies because they know King County won’t take them. However, he always has his officers try to get them filed this way if indeed a felony appears to have been committed.
King County pays the cost of felony cases, while misdemeanors go back to the individual cities to be handled in municipal court.
“[It] is crazy because then the cities end up eating the cost of prosecution,” Colagiovanni said. “The cities end up eating the cost of incarceration, if there is that.”
He has spoken with other municipal police departments throughout the county and found “all up and down the county, the same level of frustration with getting these cases filed.”
In response to the KIRO 7 story, the Washington State Fraternal Order of Police stated, “A failure to consistently prosecute repeat and prolific offenders does immeasurable damage to the public’s sense of safety and fails to consider the victims and the unintended negative impact on the community when such decisions are made.”
Revolving door offenders
Repeat offenders have made headlines recently after a report commissioned by Seattle neighborhood districts and businesses revealed that 100 “prolific offenders” are responsible for 3,500 crimes committed in Seattle.
It’s an entire system that is not limited to the prosecutor’s office, but the judges as well, in Colagiovanni’s view.
“They just, for whatever reason — I don’t believe it’s jail overcrowding, but sometimes they talk about that — they just let them out on their personal recognizance,” he said. “And these offenders, these repeat offenders, they go out and re-victimize the citizens. And really, that honestly is what this is about.”
Colagiovanni said that in his experience, these repeat offenders almost always commit more felonies after being let out, then get arrested, then get let out again, creating a dangerous cycle.
The county has what’s called a “conservative filing policy” — it picks one felony and drops the rest in order to get a plea deal and avoid the cost of a trial. This means that the other potential felonies never show up on the offender’s criminal record.
Often times, when faced with a list of recommended felony charges, the prosecutor’s office will choose the least serious one, Colagiovanni said.
As Sun reported, offender Nathan Peterson was found in Black Diamond last year with a stolen car, a stolen gun, drugs, drug paraphernalia, and counterfeit money, but was only charged with one felony — possession of a stolen vehicle — rather than the five that were recommended.
Peterson was released and failed to appear in court, continuing the cycle of committing felonies, getting arrested, and getting released for several months until he was shot in a standoff after shooting at officers.
Because there was a gun under the seat of the stolen car, Colagiovanni wanted to do a DNA test on the gun to find out if Peterson had stolen the firearm. For the police commander, the crime of stealing a gun would be a red flag that a criminal has the potential to be very dangerous.
“I wanted the gun charge on him, because he’s a convicted felon,” Colagiovanni said.
The Washington State Patrol said it would do the test, but just needed an okay from the prosecutor’s office. The prosecutor’s office would not send the email giving permission, claiming first that WSP was too busy, and then that doing the DNA test would not be following the set precedent.
“This went on for eight months … after eight months, and him picking up new felonies, I finally sent an email back, begging, ‘Can I please have your approval to do the DNA because he picked up so many other felony charges?'” Colagiovanni said.
Finally, he said, the prosecutor’s office relented, on the basis of the new charges.
“You all are spending all kinds of money on this grant to decide and figure out, from a public health standpoint, why we have so many gun crimes in Southern King County,” he told the prosecutor’s office. “This is an example of why we have so many gun crimes in Southern King County, it’s because you won’t prosecute a guy who possessed a gun who’s a convicted felon.”
Property crime as the gateway crime
Colagiovanni said that “it’s just property crime” is a common excuse for not going harder on crimes of theft in the Seattle area, but he doesn’t see it that way. Property crime may not seem very serious, but it can be a slippery slope that leads to other more serious crimes, crimes that can harm other human beings.
“People doing the property crimes are the ones who evolve, generally speaking, into other crimes,” he explained. “And if there’s no accountability for what they’re doing, these property crimes that they’re committing, what’s the point?”
One offender arrested for stealing cars even admitted to the Black Diamond police commander that he only steals cars in King County because there would be little to no repercussions.
“I don’t want to sound like the stereotypical cop — ‘Put everybody in jail,'” Colagiovanni said. “That’s not what we’re about. But we’re about accountability.”
He wants to see programs help people with addiction and mental illness, and would be fine with these programs taking the place of jail time. But if the offender refuses to complete treatment or show up for check-ins with counselors, he said, then “maybe we re-institute the charges.”
“I’m all for programs to help these people, give them a chance … but just to give them a free pass, it just blows my mind,” he said.