Perspective: Democrats’ policies on criminal justice are killing the West Coast
They ‘reimagined’ criminal justice, and the results have been disastrous for law enforcement and for cities
This summer, motorists took over an intersection in Los Angeles, using their cars to form a pit for drivers to recklessly perform donuts in front of a large and growing crowd. Then the looting began.
The surveillance video is shocking.
The mob of spectators-turned-looters descended on a nearby 7-Eleven. Dozens of people stole snacks, cigarettes, booze and lottery tickets, most not even bothering to cover their faces. They knew police officers wouldn’t show up in time and, even if they did, charges weren’t likely to stick. Not in Los Angeles County.
While this was one incident, the sad reality is that this scene could have unfolded in a number of Democrat-run cities on the West Coast that “reimagined” the criminal justice system after the 2020 death of George Floyd.
The reforms, championed by Black Lives Matter activists, grew out of a progressive ideology that views criminals as victims — victims of a justice system steeped in white supremacy. The effects have been disastrous, particularly on the West Coast, where a culture of lawlessness has taken hold as police departments have lost funding.
Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti followed through on his pledge to cut $150 million from the Los Angeles Police Department budget. Violent crime — especially murders — soared. And the department was short some 500 officers in 2021, with the city now experiencing a 2022 recruitment crisis.
In San Francisco, Mayor London Breed cut $120 million from the city’s police department. Homicides increased by 17% in 2021 compared to 2020. Rape, larceny, assault and motor vehicle theft are also up according to the SFPD crime dashboard. It’s the worst possible time to have a staffing shortage; the department is down 300 officers.
The Seattle Police Department experienced a mass exodus, leaving the city short at least 500 officers. Staffing is so low that detectives were pulled from sexual assault cases so they could work patrol, as precincts routinely fail to reach staffing minimums.
Portland is looking for at least 100 new officers after veteran cops quit. Portland Police Association President Sgt. Aaron Schmautz blames, in part, the “180 sustained days of open rioting in 2020” by Antifa and other elements.
“As a result, our social fabric has worn thin,” Schmautz told me. “Shootings and homicides have continued to increase. Social disorder has metastasized into a significant rise in all levels of crime. Small businesses have been particularly impacted by long wait times for calls and slow response from an undersized police force.”
Effects on community policing
To tackle crime, you need proactive, community policing. But without the necessary staff, officers barely have time to respond to the backlog of 911 calls greeting them at the start of their shifts.
One way to create better relationships between the community and law enforcement is through community policing. This approach embeds the same officers in neighborhoods for pro-active patrol where they get to know business owners and residents. But departments don’t have enough cops to follow this pattern. It turns out that a sustained two-year campaign of demonizing cops hurts recruitment.
But even if police departments were fully staffed, progressive policies are getting in the way of keeping the peace.
Democrats in Oregon passed legislation restricting law enforcement’s use of tear gas and created prohibitions against added charges if someone is arrested for conduct in addition to interfering with an officer. In California, new legislation made it easier to revoke or suspend the certification for officers guilty of misconduct at a time when anti-police sentiment is high. But none of the legislation went as far as what happened in Washington state, where the Democrat-controlled Legislature passed sweeping bills that fundamentally changed policing, including one that is a near-total ban on vehicular pursuits.
To pursue criminals fleeing in a vehicle, police now need probable cause — a higher bar than “reasonable suspicion” — that a violent crime occurred, plus permission from a supervisor and a determination that not chasing the suspect is more dangerous than letting them go.
The consequences of this bill were seen almost immediately. According to Northwest Public Broadcasting, “veteran troopers say there’s been a dramatic uptick in drivers fleeing traffic stops.”
Criminals adapted to the new policy with a surge of nonviolent, quickly executed crimes. Car theft in 2021, after the law changed, rose 50%. Catalytic converter theft was up an astonishing 10,000% over 2019 by mid-June. Smash-and-grab robberies, especially of pot shops and parking lots, soared.
Under the law, even if police witness a break-in, if the suspect drives away, police cannot pursue. Chelan County Sheriff Brian Burnett, also a Washington State criminal justice training commissioner, has been sounding the alarms for over a year.
“Law enforcement’s inability to legally pursue violent and career criminals has emboldened individuals, empowering them to plan and put in play both property and person crimes, dramatically increasing crime rates in Washington State, which is also minimizing our quality of life,” Burnett said.
Even when police make arrests, progress has been stymied by partisan prosecutors who act more like defense attorneys.
“There’s no debating that the criminal justice system is plagued by racism,” Los Angeles County prosecutor George Gascon tweeted. “Almost 30% of California’s prison population is Black. Yet only 6% of California’s total population is Black. This did not happen by accident.”
Other states have embraced restorative justice programs as alternatives to prison.
One program in the King County-Seattle area gives a pass to juveniles who are accused of certain felonies. If a juvenile suspect steals a car, assaults a classmate or even brings a gun to school, he likely won’t see jail time.
When a group of mayors slammed this approach, which they blame for the surge of crime, one prosecutor told them to “get used to” juveniles being treated this way. The county will soon unveil virtually the same program for adult offenders.
Meanwhile, crime is making these cities unlivable. Much of it is driven by the intersection of homelessness and drug addiction.
An abject failure
Under pressure from activists who complain that virtually any enforcement is “criminalizing poverty,” many Democrat leaders have taken a hands-off approach to the homeless who are criminals or addicts.
Los Angeles is home to over 66,000 homeless residents, by far the largest on the West Coast and second-highest in the country, behind only New York City. Sacramento and San Francisco have nearly 10,000 homeless residents, while the Seattle area has reached over 13,000 and Portland more than 6,600.
Democratic mayors and activists say high-priced housing is responsible for the rise in homelessness. Their goal is to create more subsidized and low-income housing, instead of addressing the addiction and mental health issues which are at the root of homelessness.
The drug crisis is fueling the surge in homelessness and Democrats made it worse by effectively legalizing drugs. Oregon, for example, passed Measure 110 in 2020. The law made personal possession of hard drugs, like cocaine, fentanyl and heroin, punishable by a civil citation encouraging the addict to call a hotline for addiction resources and a $100 fine. The measure was also meant to fund drug addiction treatment. This experiment has been an abject failure.
Out of roughly 2,000 drug citations handed out during the first year of implementation, only 19 requested drug treatment resources via the hotline. Nearly half of those receiving citations never showed up in court.
Rather than treat their addiction, the state enabled it. Only 0.85% of the 16,000 addicts who sought resources went into drug rehab. Many of the others were given clean needles to continue their habit and overdose treatments like Naloxone.
West Coast Democrats embrace a “harm reduction model.” This strategy effectively “meets addicts where they are,” offering them safer alternatives to continue their habit rather than pushing them toward detox. For example, in Washington, Public Health of Seattle & King County operates a mobile van to hand out clean needles, even to minors. In California, Democrats recently passed legislation to allow cities to operate “safe consumption sites.”
It was too extreme an idea even for Gov. Gavin Newsom, who vetoed the bill. But that didn’t end the fight. San Francisco City Attorney David Chiu reportedly agreed to back a nonprofit that plans to operate a site, despite the veto.
Providing addicts space to shoot up or smoke fentanyl, while refusing to enforce basic laws, has only enabled them. Consequently, homeless addicts turn to crimes like theft to pay for their drugs of choice. And residents are fed up.
While there’s been some improvement, downtown offices in Seattle and Portland remain empty as employees opt to stay home to avoid lengthy and sometimes dangerous commutes. Starbucks is even closing high-performing locations in Seattle, Portland and Los Angeles over crime concerns.
Some residents are simply moving away.
California saw a net loss of nearly 262,000 residents between July 1, 2020, and July 1, 2021, with the bulk coming from Los Angeles County. San Francisco lost roughly 54,000 residents during the same time period.
Both Seattle and Portland saw modest declines: Seattle, about 4,300 residents, and Portland, about 11,000. But it is the first time that Seattle lost population since 2002, and Portland since 2012. And at the same time, populations of conservative cities in Idaho, Utah, Texas and Florida saw large population increases.
Media accounts blamed the population drop on both COVID-19 and housing costs. Why live in an expensive small apartment or home in a big city when you’re working from home? But this ignores the deep frustration many residents feel about the state of their cities.
Meanwhile, residents who choose to stay are fighting back.
San Francisco’s notoriously left-wing population had enough of the light-on-crime approach from progressive District Attorney Chesa Boudin. He was overwhelmingly recalled, and replaced with a law-and-order district attorney, Brooke Jenkins.
Seattle saw its first Republican elected to a citywide office in decades on a campaign to crack down on crime, with Ann Davison becoming the city’s first woman to hold the city attorney position. She defeated a socialist abolitionist candidate who vowed to stop most misdemeanor prosecutions. And in Portland, residents put enough political pressure on the mayor and council to refund its police department.
There seems to be a shift back to reasonable policies where criminals are charged for their crimes and police departments are funded. But it’s still slow going. Crime is still rising, and homelessness shows no sign of improvement across the West Coast. Democrats still hold all the power, and they’re not yet governing as if their power is threatened by the voters.
That will only change when Democrat-run cities hit rock bottom. Many residents, however, won’t wait around to see what that looks like — and good luck getting them to come back.
Jason Rantz is a writer and Seattle-based talk show host on KTTH Radio. He’s a frequent guest on Fox News, including “Tucker Carlson Tonight,” “The Faulkner Focus” and “Jessie Watters Primetime.” On Twitter, he’s @JasonRantz.