Trust Is Reciprocal
Wednesday, July 18, 2018
TRUST IS RECIPROCAL: Eric Richey’s yard signs say “Trusted Leadership.”
It’s an oddly tone-deaf message, given the leadership that is trusted is that of Dave McEachran, the Whatcom County Prosecutor who is retiring after 46 years of service that Richey seeks to replace in November. Is this message intended to tell voters they can trust that nothing will change in the county prosecutors office under the leadership of Eric Richey?
McEachran has had a long and storied and distinguished career as head of Whatcom County’s largest public law office. He is a gifted and mighty law dog that few were eager to go up against in trial court, and that is a potent asset for any prosecutor. No one is denying that. But Richey is not McEachran. Richey is subordinate to McEachran.
Richey has spent his career as deputy prosecutor working for McEachran, and therefore surely knows that office well. Though McEachran himself had decided not to seek an additional term as early as last summer, he did not disclose this decision until frightfully close to filing deadline, foreclosing on the opportunity for any of numerous qualified local attorneys to consider running for the office. After Richey announced he would run, McEachran strongly endorsed him—making Richey McEachran’s heir apparent.
Is this campaign message suggesting that Richey will remain subordinate to McEachran, and that prosecutors’ methods and practices will remain substantially unchanged since Nixon was in office?
In their annual report to Whatcom County Council last week, the Incarceration Prevention and Reduction Task Force provided an analysis of criminal justice and behavioral health programs and recommended changes to reduce incarceration of individuals struggling with mental illness and chemical dependency, and to reduce jail use by pretrial defendants who can be safely released. The task force was formed by the Whatcom County Council in 2015 to study conditions that were related to overcrowding at the jail and find cost-effective alternatives to improve outcomes in the justice system.
Among their findings and recommendations, the task force identified the need for pretrial risk assessment and pretrial monitoring that might permit the release of qualified inmates awaiting trial; new sentencing strategies and improved access to alternatives to jail, including electronic home monitoring; strategies to reduce the number of outstanding arrest warrants; and the expansion of therapeutic courts. The task force found the county’s insufficient substance abuse and mental health treatment capacity was a hindrance to justice outcomes.
Every one of these items—every one—is strongly under the purview and providence of the prosecutors office, which has extraordinary discretion about whether to budget and implement these recommendations or ignore them. The prosecutors office, for example, has powerful latitude in championing and recommending sentencing alternatives, quashing warrants and approving qualified applicants for therapeutic court.
Yet the prosecutors office has been slow walking all of these reforms, primarily out of a tradition of not having supported them in the past.
In a press release issued in June, Richey himself spoke of the enormous influence of his office with regard to federal immigration and deportation orders.
“Undocumented individuals deserve access to justice,” Richey said. “I am committed to not alerting federal agents when an undocumented individual has been a victim of a crime —they deserve access to justice too, and I do not intend to alert federal agents in these cases, nor have I ever in these cases. As prosecutor I’ll be proactive in making sure this is well known in our community so that everyone can come forward to report a crime, regardless of their status.”
Richey’s laudable remarks, however, arrived as rebuke to the comments of a private citizen on social media and called for his opponent in this race, city attorney James Erb, to rein in those comments.
The press release was a troubling reminder of the prosecutors office continuing to monitor social media and call to account the exercise of constitutional rights of free expression. The press release was quickly withdrawn and replaced by a more positive spin.
The rebuke carried echoes of McEachran’s repeated attempts in 2017 to seek search warrants to surveil the Facebook posts of Red Line Salish Sea organizing to protest the Dakota pipeline, an invasion challenged by the American Civil Liberties Union. McEachran’s office ultimately secured private information, including messages to and from the page and a list of everyone “invited” to the protest event.
“A month after the protest, McEachran live-streamed into the state Capitol to testify in favor of an economic disruption bill that would allow Washington’s law enforcement agencies to thwart protests with criminal charges conferring significant prison time,” the Intercept reported. “The bill, since defeated, would have made obstructing commerce (or planning a protest that obstructed commerce) a class C felony, punishable with up to five years in prison.”
It’s not the last of these attempts by McEachran’s office to surveil the peaceful organizing of social protests, and the innocent association of others who support or seek information on such protests. We’ll see more of these efforts as the prosecutors office coordinates with federal law enforcement on both sides of the border to monitor social media organizing protests related to the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion.
These matters and others may be discussed in a unique candidates forum this week produced by communities of color and advocates for the poor. Candidates Richey and Erb will appear before a panel of local, grassroots organizers from Red Line Salish Sea, Racial Justice Coalition, Homes Now, Latino Advocacy, Black Lives Matter Bellingham, and Northwest Detention Center Resistance to answer questions that matter the most to their respective constituencies. The event is scheduled for 7pm Thurs. July 19 at the First Congregational Church in Bellingham, 2401 Cornwall Ave.