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One week before ballots are due, Washington county sheriffs push against police reform

spokane police car.jpg
Rebecca White | SPR
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A Spokane Police vehicle parked at the county public safety campus. Sheriffs and police chiefs have criticized police reform laws, especially laws limiting vehicle pursuits, saying they need the authority to detain people they think may have been involved in a crime.

Law enforcement leaders from across the state made are pushing against police and criminal justice reform, and candidates on the ballot this election.

In a press conference a week before ballots are due, five sheriffs urged voters to push back against those reforms. Spokane County Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich argued the laws empower criminals and lead to more violence against law enforcement.

“Stop electing the people that build bad policy,” he said. “This is the biggest decision you have to make. It is time to change the narrative and it is time to change the policy and bring safety. And it’s your safety, mom and pop, this is your safety that we're talking about, your kids’ safety. It’s time to change that narrative.”

Knezovich and other law enforcement leaders point to an increase in gun violence the country has seen in the last year. But they did not provide data on how the Washington reforms have influenced crime statistics.

Sheriffs and police chiefs strongly oppose two police reform bills that were approved after the 2020 racial justice protests. One restricted police car chases and banned chokeholds and no-knock warrants. The second created a higher standard for when officers can use force and required police to use de-escalation tactics when possible. State lawmakers did roll back some of those reforms in this year’s legislative session, but law enforcement argues the changes didn’t go far enough.

Law enforcement leaders have focused on the police car chase change, saying it has led to people refusing to pull over when officers turn on their blue and red lights.

The press conference was also in part a response to comments made by Federal Way Representative Jesse Johnson in a Twitter thread in September. Johnson was responding to a video a group of western Washington law enforcement leaders and mayors made calling on the legislature and voters to roll back the police pursuit portion of the reform bill.

Johnson Tweeted: “The legislature did what needed to be done and some police got angry because they’re culture must shift and they can’t go around killing people. Why does the second largest union in our state still support the policy then?”

Johnson is one of several legislators of color who chose not to seek reelection and has been an outspoken proponent of police accountability and reform.

He has also called out the timing of the video and law enforcement campaign, saying police should have come to the negotiation table when the bill was first drafted, instead of after the fact during an election.

Sheriffs also included links to specific mailers sent out by candidates like Sharon Shewmake, who is from Whatcom County. In her mailers she focused on data driven public safety policies.

Whatcom County Sheriff Bill Elfo didn’t name specific legislators, but accused some of lying about public safety.

“You need to know where your individual legislators and senators stood on these positions when they were before their respective houses and voting as a body," he said. "It’s come more to light now with some of the literature we're seeing in our mail boxes, the ads we're seeing on the radio and on television, where some people we know that did not support us, that bought into this agenda, are now claiming the biggest supporters of public safety and law enforcement."

Shewmake, an economist, has publicly responded to criticism of her. On her campaign website she points to red states like Texas, that have not passed police reform laws, but are seeing increases in crime as well.