With suspension of jury trials, Whatcom among ‘top places in state for property crime,’ says prosecutor

Mar 29, 2022, 12:43 PM | Updated: 12:44 pm
(Flickr Creative Commons)
(Flickr Creative Commons)

While Seattle and Tacoma hold notoriety when it comes to recently reported spikes in crime, a third Western Washington city by the sea has borne the brunt of its own crime surge only deepened over the pandemic.

Year over year, Bellingham experienced a 300% increase in car thefts in the early parts of 2022, the Bellingham Herald reports. Those statistics tell a story, says Whatcom County Prosecutor Eric Richey.

“We’re seeing a lot of property crime, a lot of, well, we’re seeing all sorts of crimes, property crime increases have been staggering in our community,” Richey told KTTH’s Jason Rantz.

“There have been some statistics that have been telling us that we are one of the top places in the state for the increases in property crime, and that is not OK. Our community is concerned about it, and prosecutors are concerned about it. Something needs to change.”

Richey attributes the problem to two primary factors: the first of which is that COVID-era restrictions on jury trials have lessened community accountability, which has emboldened criminals.

“People were being booked and released … Then there’s also COVID, causing a suspension of jury trials. That stopped us from providing any accountability for someone who might have been convicted of a crime. We just had no accountability for [them].”

An illustrative, recent example of that idea in practice is the report that a Blaine man “kicked in the front doors of two occupied homes and fought with a resident” just hours after their jail release for an unrelated property crime, according to the Bellingham Herald.

“Sometimes people don’t need incarceration. Sometimes accountability means something different … drug court or mental health court. We haven’t been able to get people to engage in those things, because we’ve had no way to get them to respond to the courts with COVID,” Richey continued.

Compounding the problem are recently amended legislative police accountability measures, according to Richey.

In 2021, the Legislature placed limits on the extent to which police could use force when investigating a crime. The recently passed HB 2037 has clarified the intent of the law such that police now have license to use “Terry stops” as an investigative tool, a practice that does not qualify as use of force without probable cause, which was broadly curtailed with 2021’s legislation.

“The legislature [was] stopping police from doing their jobs. That’s been a real problem … People need to understand that if you commit a crime, the police can chase you, and that’s not something that is happening today,” Richey offered.

“I’m going to give the Legislature a little bit of credit for having gone back and taking care of the use of force statute. It’s not perfect. I’m not going to say that, but it’s much better … Terry Stops are how officers can investigate crime. I am thankful that the Legislature understood that and responded properly by fixing that … with the current change in the law, I believe that officers can conduct a Terry stop, they can investigate the crime.”

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With suspension of jury trials, Whatcom among ‘top places in state for property crime,’ says prosecutor