Washington's Congress members and state government at odds over drug enforcement funds
Seven Democrat and Republican members of Congress from Washington state are intervening in a matter of state law enforcement funding, saying the state government's decision to move funding from law enforcement into potential alternatives could prove "disastrous."
It's a public picture of the push and pull behind the scenes in the Democrat line, where some progressives want to fund non-police alternatives to escalating mental illness and drug deaths, but Democrats closer to the center are worried about appearing to "defund the police."
Since 2005, Washington state has taken federal money from the Department of Justice and put it primarily into "multi-jurisdictional drug task forces." County sheriffs, tribal cops, state, feds, all teaming up to monitor and bust drug trafficking.
"Let's look at treatment, let's look at the root causes of addiction, but at the same time, you know, we have criminals who are flooding our streets with these drugs."U.S. Rep. Marilyn Strickland, D-South Sound
That will total about $4.2 million in the 2023 fiscal year, according to the Washington state Department of Commerce, which receives money from the federal government and distributes it. They use it mostly to support operations for these task forces, which are otherwise largely funded by local jurisdictions, according to Chief Tobin Meyer, commander of the Skagit County Interlocal Drug Task Force.
In July, a letter obtained by KNKX from the state Department of Commerce told law enforcement agencies that there's a plan to redirect some of this federal funding. The letter outlines a plan to put about 30% into a new fund for crime prevention and education campaigns, public health interventions, or community-led safety initiatives. The state extended support through next June, but the letter said law enforcement agencies should look for alternatives beyond that.
Then, last week, after hearing from law enforcement leadership, a group of seven U.S. House Democrats and Republicans got involved.
Washington representatives Rick Larsen, Marie Gluesenkamp-Perez and six others signed a letter addressed to Governor Jay Inslee. The group includes the entire state's House delegation, except for Pramila Jayapal and Adam Smith, progressive Democrats representing the Seattle area and southern suburbs.
"[Drug task forces] in Washington need more, not fewer, resources to overcome unprecedented challenges, including record-breaking drug trafficking across the U.S.-Canada border. In February, monthly drug seizures reached the highest levels of the last three years with more than 27,600 pounds of illegal drugs confiscated at the border," the letter said.
"Let's look at treatment, let's look at the root causes of addiction," Rep. Marilyn Strickland told KNKX, "but at the same time, you know, we have criminals who are flooding our streets with these drugs."
This March in her district, one task force helped bust a white supremacist prison gang trafficking meth and fentanyl out of Pierce County.
A state official responded in an email that these federal funds can – and in other states do – go to prosecutors, tribes, victim service organizations, and mental health providers.
"A federally-required, Strategic Plan developed in coordination with the JAG [Justice Assistance Grant] Advisory Committee and released for public comment in May introduced a new strategy to guide Washington’s JAG investments over the next five years," Kate Kelly, director of the state's Office of Firearm Safety and Violence Prevention, wrote in an email. "In the future, JAG funds will be allocated for the purposes - and focused on the priorities identified in the Plan - including a new JAG Innovation Fund designed to support a range of promising projects."
Kelly didn't respond by publication to a follow-up email asking for more detail on those potential projects. The strategic plan broadly describes a few "innovative, new and community-led efforts," including crime prevention and education campaigns, public health interventions, or community-led safety initiatives. Some of the money will also go to issues other than drugs, such as protecting election workers.
Meyer, of the Skagit County task force, said he doesn't think those projects are bad ideas, but that the move throws the task forces' future into uncertainty, undermining drug-busting efforts during the worst of the fentanyl crisis. Washington state's drug overdose deaths rose faster than anywhere in the nation from March 2022 to March 2023, according to numbers from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
"I don't think you're gonna find a commander — a Task Force Commander — across the state of Washington that isn't for innovative solutions to this crisis," Meyer said. "What we asked for is that not be done at the detriment of the joint task forces here in the state of Washington."
A spokesperson for Gov. Inslee said in an email that there is interest in the state legislature in "looking at other long-term funding options" during the legislative session early next year, before the task forces' funding runs out.