King County public safety proposal includes millions to address repeat offenders

Tens of millions of dollars would be spent on a public health approach to dealing with criminals in a budget proposal made by the King County Executive.

Dow Constantine and several county department heads, including the Sheriff, briefed reporters on several items on Monday.  

Critics of the Executive have said his policies put the rights of the criminals and their potential rehabilitation ahead of the victims of their crimes.

"We are deploying options to keep residents safe and to prove accountability," he said in a briefing held inside the Sheriff’s office in Burien.

Several of his proposals rely on hiring additional sworn deputies and transit officers at a time when many jurisdictions are competing for the same talent pool.

$21 million would go to supporting 140 metro transit security officers to deal with the rising number of passenger complaints of crime and drug use on Metro buses.

There’s $9 million proposed to support the 52-member Regional Peacekeeper Collective in their community-led approach to gun violence prevention. Another $2 million would add more detectives to the major crimes unit and create a new unit in the Sheriff’s Office focusing on reducing gun violence.

"Our job is to ensure help is available when and where you need it," Constantine said.

Another proposal calls for $2.4 million to expand the county’s Vital program to include 80 repeat offenders. Currently, the limit is 60. The program attempts to address underlying issues like housing, behavior and drug treatment and social interactions to keep repeat offenders from cycling through the jail.  

The cost spent on each individual averages $100,000.

"What we see is a program where participants have reduced jail bookings, reduced emergency room visits and increased housing stability," says Leo Flor, Director of King County Community and Health Services. "As I take a look at that, that is a good investment." 

Short-staffing and CDC's COVID rules for jails have been the blame for booking restrictions at the County Jail.

Since May, the jail at the Maleng Regional Justice Center in Kent has been accepting new bookings by appointment only. The downtown jail has been open 24/7 except for three periods during the summer when there was not enough staff to book people into the jail.

Restrictions put in place by the Constantine and jail staff have limited bookings and stays in jail to only people accused of violent offenses or crimes against another person.

When FOX 13 asked Constantine if those restrictions would be lifted if the jail staffing reaches normal levels, he said, "as soon as we have the opportunity to do so, we will of course relax remaining restrictions on booking, which are not particularly significant." 

Over the last two years, police agencies have complained both publicly and privately that the failure to keep lower-level criminals in jail until their court dates has resulted in more crime and larger numbers of repeat offenders.

'Justice crisis'; Staffing shortages affect criminal justice, say WA law enforcement unions

The three presidents of King County’s largest law enforcement unions are calling on lawmaker to "take the politics out of justice system," claiming staffing shortages are jeopardizing a victim’s right to justice.

Constantine says police agencies can always call the jail to keep a suspect behind bars.

"Every jurisdiction, every police department has had the ability to call up the jail and say, ‘we have a guy whose current offense doesn’t fit the criteria for booking, but he is someone who is causing an ongoing challenge in our community and we want to come book him,’" he said.

The King County Department of Adult and Juvenile Detention is down 110 officers, which represents 20% of its sworn staff. The plan calls for a continued push to hire more officers, which is nothing new.

FOX 13 asked the Executive if he thinks staffing issues will be solved over the next two years.

"This is obviously a community-wide and society-wide problem, the shortage of workers," he said.  "We have extremely competitive salaries." 

The public safety budget also includes $5 million to provide body-worn cameras and training to all sheriff's deputies over the next three years. 

When asked, why would a deployment is taking so long, given that neighboring police departments have been using body-worn cameras for years.

"It’s more complicated than you think," Constantine said.  

The union representing deputies is currently in contract negotiations and body-worn cameras need to be bargained into a new contract.

Even if all sides reach an agreement on deputies wearing the cameras, Sheriff Patti Cole Tindall says it will be a steady and slow rollout precinct by precinct.

"We have learned from other agencies, like Seattle Police," she says.  "By doing it one precinct at a time, we can implement, train, stabilize then move on to the next.  We feel it’s the best model and I don’t think it’s going to take us to the end of 2025, I think we can do it sooner."

The complete public safety budget will be unveiled at the end of the month for the King County Council’s consideration.