Opinion: Lawlessness — another new normal

Portland, Oregon. Late last month, about 100 people engaged in riot behavior in downtown Portland, Oregon. Some of them started fires in dumpsters; others smashed store windows. Police were on the scene, but they did not interfere. The City of Portland estimates that repair to damages would cost approximately $500,000.


Knowing no more than these facts, one would likely ask, “Has Portland become a lawless city?”


Eight years ago, Emre Taskin, a business owner who immigrated to the U.S. from Istanbul, Turkey, told KPTV that he moved his family to Portland “because of its charm and because they felt safe.” This month, Taskin’s security cameras caught images of a man kicking in the glass on the front of his building. The burglar stole the cameras.


He said, “People who are doing this, they feel really comfortable while doing that. They feel like nothing’s going to happen to them. No response will come…. They can do whatever they want.” He’d like to install security shutters outside his business, but because the building is designated as a historic structure, he can’t get approval from the city.


Perhaps lawlessness is spurred by House Bill 2928 which puts restrictions on police with regard to crowd control. It prohibits the use of pepper spray and rubber bullets, but according to GOP Minority House Leader Christine Drazan, “activist attorneys are deliberately misinterpreting legislation to prevent police from intervening.” Portland Police Sergeant Kevin Alvin added, “Until we have some clarity on the bill, we have to follow the most restrictive interpretation of it.”


San Francisco, California. Since 2019, Walgreens has closed 10 stores in the City by the Bay. A spokesperson told SFGate that the corporation will close five more of its outlets in the city due to rampant shoplifting. Walgreens’ Phil Caruso said, “Organized retail crime continues to be a challenge facing retailers across San Francisco, and we are not immune to that. Retail theft… has continued to increase in the past few months to five times our chain average.”


A year ago, Walgreens increased its investment in security measures by 46 times the chain’s average. But, each of the already-closed stores lost $1,000 per day in stolen merchandise. According to Business Insider, Ahsha Safai, a member of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, “I am completely devasted by this news. This Walgreens is less than a mile from seven schools and has been a staple for seniors, families, and children for decades. This closure will significantly impact this community.”


Perhaps this spike in shoplifting has been abetted by the legislature’s support of Proposition 47, which reduced a large number of crimes — including theft up to $950 — to misdemeanors.


Seattle, Washington. Since 2010, Seattle has “experienced a dramatic increase in crime tied to rampant addiction and homelessness,” according to the Seattle Police Department. After he became City Attorney, Pete Holmes led the charge “to impose social justice as opposed to criminal justice,” according to The Federalist.


The publication claims that certain members of city council have clarified the philosophical orientation. Councilwoman Lisa Herbold is cited as sponsoring “a proposal that would expand ‘duress’ as a legal defense to include symptoms of addiction, mental illness, or poverty.” Author Michael Hall states, “if passed, the measure would help a criminal evade conviction by simply blaming his or her crime on a drug problem or financial need….” He adds that former public safety adviser Scott Lindsey explains, “Over 100 different crimes listed under the Seattle municipal code would effectively be nullified.” These “former crimes” could include “assaults, harassment, trespassing, and even cyberstalking and sexual exploitation.”


Public sentiment


A movement to reform police departments reemerged after the deaths of unarmed Black Americans, like George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, at the hands of police. The call went out to “defund the police,” and this concept was widely misunderstood. The original idea was to redistribute some of the police budgets to community social programs that might result in a reduction in crime.


Regardless of how the concept is understood, it reveals a deep divide within our country. A large majority of white Americans (67 percent) and Republicans (84 percent) oppose it, while a smaller, yet significant, percentage of black Americans (28 percent) and Democrats (34 percent) favored it. Almost unbelievably, one-third of adult Millennials under age 35 were in favor of disbanding police departments all together.


West coast legislation


I’ve concentrated on the three states that form the west coast of the nation because it is here that legislation seems to be most restrictive in tying the hands of police in many circumstances. In The Fourth Corner News, Charlie Crabtree reports that Washington recently enacted legislation that “restricts officers from using any degree of force unless ‘probable cause’ exists to arrest, prevent an escape, or protect someone from imminent harm.”


The key term in that definition is “probable cause” because it is a radical departure from “long-standing court precedent authorizing temporary investigative detentions under the lesser standard of “reasonable suspicion.” Crabtree states that eliminating this investigative tool “undoubtedly will result in increased victimization and many criminals remaining free.”


Moreover, in the past, when officers encountered grave circumstances, they had the ability to take a person into protective custody. Crabtree points out that “the new legislation limits officers from using reasonable force when necessary to do so.” In effect, that responsibility has been transferred from police to behavioral-health professionals, few of whom are available or willing to take on the risks associated with the violence that often accompanies unconventional behavior.


Other legislation reclassifies all drug possession from felonies to misdemeanors, regardless of the quantity of drugs or whether they are for personal use or for sale. A person’s first two offenses are now immune from prosecution.


This type of legislation is likely to be copied in other major metropolitan areas, particularly in the northeast. Crabtree states that such new laws have resulted in the retirements and resignations of experienced officers and hampered the recruitment of replacements.


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Jim Glynn is Professor Emeritus of Sociology. He may be contacted at j_glynn@att.net.