Now that the goose is cooked and eaten, the tree trimmed and recycled, the presents bought and returned, it’s time to get back into work mode. With the new year already almost a week gone, it is well past time to discuss the important issues in public safety that will have the most effect on us – both locally and nationally – in 2014.
The following are three critical issues of public safety that require the most attention in 2014.
1. Gun violence: It is difficult to even mention this issue without arousing the angry attention of the fervent protectors of gun rights. But 2013 was another bloody year, with 29 mass shootings and nearly 10,000 gun-related homicides due, in large part, to the presence of nearly 300 million firearms in the U.S. (the highest global per person ownership rate by country, according to wikipedia). There is clearly no shortage of weapons for would-be killers to choose from. With such a huge inventory, divisive legislation such as background checks and assault rifle bans might arguably have minimal effect.
Yet the status quo is untenable. While short term gains from admittedly intrusive gun legislation may be meager, by simply closing the gun show loophole it will be that much more difficult for the most dangerous and disturbed to gain access to firearms. And as Sandy Hook has taught us, once gun violence takes away a loved one, the idea of unregulated gun ownership becomes repellant to even the most ardent advocate.
2. Care for the mentally ill: To second the editorial board’s words, the level of care for our state’s mentally ill is abysmal. As a young patrol officer, I learned first hand what happened when both the federal and state government shuttered institutions and siphoned money away from treatment facilities. These so-called humanitarian measures effectively pushed the problem directly onto the street, overloading charities such as The Rescue Mission, filling the county jail (and hemorrhaging the county’s limited funds) and creating an ongoing state of misery for those afflicted with untreated mental health problems.
Any fix, whether temporary or permanent, will be costly. Yet the cost of doing nothing has been indelibly inked on the front page of newspapers, where photos of many of the country’s most prolific mass shooters have appeared. That includes deeply troubled individuals like Adam Lanza (Newtown), Adam Holmes (Aurora) and even Laura Sorensen, the disturbed woman who shot three strangers in a Key Peninsula supermarket. Without direct and meaningful intervention, this will be a repetitive tragedy.
3. A better incarceration model: One would think that housing criminals would be a one-size-fits-all scenario. But the current model, as pointed out in recent stories about the budget crisis at the Pierce County Jail, suggests that view is way off base. The level of competition for cheap jail beds has effectively emptied the county jail, the largest and most up-to-date facility in our area, while filling nearby jails such as Fife and (not so nearby) Yakima County. Admittedly, this is not a level playing field. The county jail is tasked with incarcerating dangerous felons, a heavy financial burden when so many of them require extensive supervision due to mental health issues. Yet despite the empty cells at Pierce County’s lockup, nearby agencies are planning to build costly new jails. Clearly this open and competitive marketplace does not serve taxpayers well.
The answer to this problem is a comprehensive and inclusive regional forum that includes all the players. From the smallest city jails to sprawling federal and state institutions, corrections leaders must find ways to halt the skyrocketing cost of incarcerating criminals. The first thing they must do, however, is admit that many of them lack the business acumen for the task. Without such a plan, an empty jail will be the legacy of county leaders, and it will continue to burn holes in our collective wallet.
That’s plenty to chew on for now. Here’s hoping that 2014 will bring with it a few solutions to these and other problems.
I hope it finds you well.