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Spokane Chief Lays Blame for ‘Lawlessness’ at Legislature’s Feet

(The Center Square) – One week after Spokane Police Chief Craig Meidl tied growing crime rates to an increase in drug trafficking, a major local bust yielded 35 pounds of methamphetamine and 50,000 fake pills believed to be fentanyl.

In addition, U.S. Attorney Vanessa R. Waldref, who serves the eastern district of Washington, reported that seven guns were seized on Spokane streets during last Thursday’s law enforcement sting.

She said the seizure was part of an ongoing drug trafficking investigation involving the Spokane Drug Enforcement Administration Task Force, Spokane Police Department Special Investigations Unit and the FBI Safe Streets Task Force.

One person has been arrested and booked for obstruction of justice. That person’s identity has yet to be revealed.

“One fentanyl-laced pill can kill, so this seizure likely saved dozens, if not hundreds, of lives in the Spokane area,” Waldref told media outlets on Friday.

Meidl had informed the Spokane Business & Commercial Property Owners Council in a Zoom forum on May 6 that gang activity had increased with a greater influx of drugs into the region.

The DEA has made Spokane County one of 11 special focus areas in the nation because the seizure rate of fentanyl has risen 1,110% in the past year. Agents say opioids and other illegal drugs are flowing over the southern border of the U.S. and being distributed via Interstate 90 near Spokane and other freeways.

Meidl said Spokane is now seeking a spike in violence and property crimes tied to increased drug trafficking.

However, he laid much of the blame for a general increase in lawlessness at the feet of the Washington Legislature. He said polices passed in 2021 to decriminalize drugs and curb police powers had fed a “resistance” to authority.

In 2020, Meidl said the state Supreme Court ruled that arresting people for simple drug possession was unconstitutional. The following year, he said the legislature convened to “fix” the law but ended up decriminalizing drug possession.

Under current law, he said the first two times persons are caught with drugs, they are diverted to service options. The third time they are cited for a misdemeanor with a maximum penalty of 90 days in jail.

The message that the “fix” is not working was echoed by Spokane County Prosecutor Larry Haskell, who was also an invited speaker at the May 6 forum.

When drug overdose deaths in the U.S. are topping 100,000 annually, it is time to hold people more accountable, not less, for trafficking, he said.

Next year, he said the legislature will revisit that drug policy, which will provide an opportunity to seek greater penalties. 

Meidl has been in law enforcement since 1994 and chief since 2016. He said nothing in his past experience compares to what officers are facing on the streets today.

Although Spokane’s crime rate had trended down for five years, a dramatic reversal occurred after laws to curtail police powers went into effect almost two years ago, he said. 

The number of shootings so far this year surpasses the total reported in all of 2018, and already exceeds 2021 numbers for the same time period, he said.

“These seems to be a shootout every other night in Spokane County somewhere,” said Haskell of the situation.

Meidl said property crime in Spokane has increased by 35% over last year. That has led to several million in losses to embattled downtown business owners.  

Car thefts in Spokane are up nearly 90%.

Meidl showed video clips during his presentation of officers having to sit idle in patrol cars while drivers left the scene of hit-and-run incidents in parking lots.

He said pursuits are no longer allowed for these low-level crimes due to policies set by lawmakers.

During the past several years, Meidl said social justice activists have stepped up their “soft on crime” campaign” to reduce the state’s prison population. With 31% of offenders committing new crimes within three years of release, he said that has led to another public safety threat.

A Department of Corrections analysis from 2021 showed that 35% of 422 prisoners who had sentences commuted by Gov. Jay Inslee had landed back in prison for new offenses, said Meidl.

“The legislature is accomplishing a very slow but methodical elimination of the Sentencing Reform Act,” explained Haskell.

The Sentencing Reform Act was enacted by the Washington legislature in 1981 and created a “grid” to determine sentences based on the seriousness of the offense.

Haskell testifies frequently in Olympia about how criminal justice reform proposals will play out on the ground. He said it has been difficult to get those messages heard by a legislature that is more focused on treatment than accountability.

“What I’m seeing is the activist groups are highly organized and very successful,” he said.

As a result, he said it is becoming more difficult to people harmed by crime the justice they deserve.

“We continue to do everything we can to hold offenders accountable,” he said.

Prohibitions on police activities and increased danger on the streets has led many officers to call it quits in recent years, said Meidl.

“They are just getting tired,” he said.

That has created a manpower shortage in nearly every agency, which puts further stress on the ranks with added overtime and pressure to do more, he said.