King County, WA – Police officials from two departments said that the King County prosecutor’s leniency toward violent offenders has made their communities less safe and killed law enforcement morale.
KIRO reported that King County declined 26 felony cases from the Auburn Police Department from September of 2018 til March of 2019, an approximately six-month period.
“A felony on someone who's got maybe 15, 20 convictions on felonies already, they commit another felony. We put hours into that case, send it to the prosecutor's office and we get a decline, and have to file it in our city prosecutor's office as a misdemeanor,” Auburn Police Commander Steve Stocker said. “And there is nothing more frustrating than that for our officers. And I think for the community once they hear those stories.”
Cmdr. Stocker cited the example of Mitchell O. Nelson, who was arrested after he stole a purse at Taco Time, carjacked somebody at Dairy Queen, and led police on a high speed pursuit before he resisted arrested when he was eventually captured, KIRO reported.
Court documents showed King County prosecutors failed to charge Nelson with assault on a law enforcement officer and he was released a few weeks later.
“That has happened many times,” Cmdr. Stocker said. “We've gotten into a pursuit with them, which is very dangerous. We arrest them, put them in jail, and sometimes a week later we're in another pursuit with them in a stolen car.”
The commander said the vicious cycle never ends well, and it didn’t in Nelson’s case.
A few months later he tried to steal another car and then barricaded himself inside a couple’s home where he proceeded to have a 12-hour standoff with police, according to KIRO.
Nelson eventually opened fire on officers and was killed when they shot back at him.
“I don't know what to say about that, you know? I know officers have said there's another example of someone, where if he was in custody like he should have been, he might be alive today,” Cmdr. Stocker told KIRO. “So that's unfortunate for him, but also unfortunate for the officers. Because you have an officer now who’s been involved in an officer involved shooting. And an officer could've gotten hurt.”
Black Diamond Police Commander Larry Colagiovanni said King County is doing the same thing to his community.
Cmdr. Colagiovanni moved to Black Diamond and joined their police force after he retired from a police department on the East Coast, KIRO reported.
“I can't even begin to tell you how much of a surprise it was coming from the other side of the country. It was a shock and it still is a shock to me how cases are prosecuted here or not prosecuted,” the commander said.
He said the most infuriating example of having the King County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office declining charges is the case of Nathan A. Peterson, KIRO reported.
Cmdr. Colagiovanni said Black Diamond Police arrested Peterson in August of 2018 in a stolen car, with a stolen gun, more than $2,000 of counterfeit cash, digital scales, a notebook listing apparent narcotic sales, more than 10 grams of methamphetamine, and almost six grams of heroin.
But King County prosecutors only charged Peterson with possession of a stolen vehicle, a seriously reduced charge, KIRO reported.
“My big concern was, this is a drug dealer - clearly a drug dealer,” Cmdr. Colagiovanni said. “I really wanted the gun charge. Because that's the person that will kill a cop. That's the person that will kill a citizen. They'll do whatever they have to do to protect themselves. I could not get them for the life of me to file that charge.”
Peterson was released from jail on his own recognizance, according to KIRO.
“I was furious. I've never seen anything like this. Thirty years I've been a cop next month, I've never seen anything like this trying to get cases filed,” Cmdr. Colagiovanni said. “I feel frustrated for my guys. Because they work really hard on these cases, they make really good cases. Only to have the case declined.”
Peterson was arrested for stolen property and possession of drugs in Auburn, so prosecutors added a possession with intent to distribute charge on top of his possession of a stolen vehicle.
Then they let him out of jail yet again – on a temporary release to visit a sick grandmother – and the career criminal never checked himself back in, KIRO reported.
But Peterson was re-arrested for possession of a stolen vehicle in Auburn a few months later.
“It’s this constant cycle of just - put them back in, ‘You gonna promise to show up in court?’ ‘I promise judge.’ Release them. Does it again. And they're literally victimizing people. And this is just little old Black Diamond. I can't imagine the bigger cities. Just - super frustrating,” Cmdr. Colagiovanni said.
He told KIRO that the King County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office was killing police officers’ morale by failing to charge the criminals they arrested.
“I think the prosecutor's office needs to do their job.” Cmdr. Colagiovanni said.
Some officers have given up getting the King County prosecutor to charge anything that isn’t a violent crime, and instead take their cases to city prosecutors.
But the most severe charge a city can pursue is a gross misdemeanor with a maximum sentence of 364 days and/or maximum of a $5,000 fine, KIRO reported.
King County Prosecuting Attorney Dan Satterberg disputed the notion that anything has changed in his office over the past 10 years.
But Satterberg admitted that King County prosecutors operated under a philosophy that resulted in a lot of dropped charges.
“A case may come to us with four or five counts, and we might charge one or two to get a plea, so we don't have to go to trial. The trials are incredibly expensive, take forever,” he said. “We have a system set up to incentivize an early plea.”
Satterberg said the King County prosecutor’s office is operating with 14 fewer attorneys than it had 12 years ago despite the fact the county’s population has increased by 300,000 people, KIRO reported.