By Rep. Christopher Hurst
The editorial pages of newspapers around the state and the public at large have been deeply passionate in their outrage at seeing so many law enforcement officers gunned down in such a short period of time. The public wants answers and action while the media has, with their outrage, been calling for cautious deliberation.
Although each event has been equally tragic, the Lakewood shootings are problematic from a process point of view. There is an almost universal belief that Maurice Clemmons should not have been released. I agree. Yet in their call for a deliberative process, some editorial boards have already begun to jump to conclusions without all of the facts, the very thing they have urged the Legislature not to do.
Many weeks ago, immediately following the Lakewood shooting, I announced that as chair of the House Public Safety Committee, I would hold hearings in January. My plan is to have experts and professionals with the proper information, educate the committee members with the facts of the case. We will then consider legislative proposals after being fully informed with accurate information as opposed to sound bites.
One of the most widely reported early misconceptions concerns a proposed constitutional amendment that could limit bail for career criminals facing life in prison on their third strike. This legislation would not result in an outright prohibition of bail, but rather allow judges to have this tool when they face a defendant like Maurice Clemmons. Our state constitution already allows the denial of bail in capital cases. Is this the silver bullet that would have saved the lives of the Lakewood police officers? It’s too early to tell, but it’s important to understand the distinction between the proposal and what was reported in the media. The deliberative process that editorial pages have called for will begin on Jan. 18 at 6 p.m., the beginning of the second week of the legislative session.
On the second point, which is the general unease felt by the public in the face of these tragic killings, it is equally important that we take a broader look at the facts of where we are today. I’m hearing from many citizens that they feel unsafe. As a 25-year veteran police officer myself, I understand. Although the assassination of police officers sitting in a police car or at a coffee shop is a sad, new chapter in our state’s history, it’s also important to note that due to the hard work and professionalism of our law enforcement officers, we are far safer than we were two decades ago.
According to U.S. Department of Justice statistics, in the early 1990s violent crime rates were extraordinarily high. We faced the prospect that 50 out of 1,000 citizens would become victims of violent crime each year. In 1992, Bill Clinton was elected, in part, due to his campaign promise to put 100,000 more police officers on the streets to halt this violence. Clinton pushed and Congress passed the Violent Crime Control and Enforcement Act, the largest crime bill in U.S. history. Police officers were hired to enforce tough new laws on violent criminals. In 1993, a group of citizen activists, led by John Carlson, made Washington the first in the nation to pass a Three Strikes Law. In 1995 voters again spoke clearly, passing Hard Time for Armed Crime. This was a perfect combination of tough laws and tough new police officers to enforce them.
In recent years, some liberals have lamented the increase in our prison population. However, they ignore the fact that the violent crime rate dropped dramatically. In truth, citizens today are 37 percent less likely to be a victim of violent crime because of the outstanding work done by our law enforcement officers.
Many of those law enforcement officers came into being and were given powerful new tools by bold decisions from elected officials, citizen activists and voters in the early 1990s. It worked.
Yet as a society, today we face a new and troubling challenge. It is not a proliferation of violent crime, but rather a new type of criminal largely unknown in our history before now – those willing to assassinate law enforcement officers simply because of the job they do.
We must take every practical measure to see that we protect those who protect us. Police work every day to see that we live in a peaceful and secure society. Now they need our help.
Although we will act with deliberation, we must not ignore the fact that careful deliberation does not preclude bold action.
Christopher Hurst represents the 31st Legislative District, is chairman of the House Public Safety Committee and worked as a police detective for 25 years.