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News / Northwest

Effort to roll back limits on Washington police pursuits faces challenges in Legislature

By Jim Brunner, The Seattle Times
Published: February 20, 2023, 4:25pm

Two years ago, Washington lawmakers clamped down on police chasing suspects in their patrol cars, passing a law sharply restricting such pursuits, which have injured and killed bystanders.

Since then, a growing coalition of mayors, business owners and law enforcement leaders has pleaded with lawmakers to ease the restrictions, pointing to a surge in criminal suspects brazenly fleeing police stops.

A bipartisan bill to allow police more discretion on pursuits has moved ahead in the current legislative session, clearing a committee cutoff deadline last week.

But the proposal faces an uncertain future, with opponents, including police-reform activists and a key Democratic committee chair, suggesting the current pursuit law is working as intended.

Instead of rolling back any pursuit restrictions this year, majority Democrats may opt to create a task force to recommend “a model vehicle pursuit policy.”

The restrictions on police pursuits were passed in 2021 as part of a broader package of limits on use of force in the wake of widespread protests over the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police in May of 2020.

The new law allows police to chase a driver only if they have probable cause to believe a person in the vehicle has committed a violent or sexual crime, or escaped from jail. It also allows pursuits for reasonable suspicion of DUI. Police may only start a pursuit if there is “an imminent threat” to public safety and if the risk of letting a person get away outweighs the risk of a car chase.

Mayors and sheriffs have peppered lawmakers with accounts of suspects fleeing with impunity since the law took effect, knowing they can’t be followed. The Washington State Patrol last year recorded more than 3,100 instances of drivers fleeing stops.

State Rep. Alicia Rule, D-Blaine, the lead sponsor of House Bill 1363, which would allow more police pursuits, said she’s pleased a version of the bill was approved Thursday by a legislative committee, keeping it alive in the ongoing session which runs through late April.

“At this point, anything that keeps this moving is a good thing,” Rule said. Her proposal has 40 co-sponsors — 20 Democrats and 20 Republicans — and has been backed by numerous city and police officials from around the state.

Rule’s proposal was watered down before passing out of the committee. It originally would have allowed police to pursue drivers if they had a reasonable suspicion — as opposed to the higher burden of probable cause — of any criminal offense. The amended version would only allow pursuits for reasonable suspicion of specific violent and sexual offenses, escapes, and DUIs.

But Rule said she’s not sure even the more modest proposal will advance further. “I have to be honest with you, we don’t even know what is going to happen in the House right now,” she said.

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Even if it advances through the House, state Sen. Manka Dhingra, D-Redmond, who chairs the Senate’s Law and Justice Committee, is not promising to give it a hearing.

“Before we change the law of the land, we need to have a compelling reason to do so,” Dhingra said, rejecting claims of the bill’s supporters who have tried to link the pursuit law to increases in crimes such as auto theft. She cited national data showing car thefts have increased in other states that didn’t change their pursuit laws.

Dhingra, who is also a longtime King County deputy prosecutor, said new technology is a better option than risky pursuits. She pointed to Redmond police, who have recently used GPS trackers fired by car-mounted air compressors to track fleeing vehicles and arrest the occupants later.

Dhingra said the pursuit restrictions, similar to some that were enacted earlier in some cities and counties, are part of a larger effort to change the culture of police to be “guardians of our community instead of warriors on our streets.”

At a hearing on the bill last month, police-reform advocates urged lawmakers to reject changes to the pursuit law.

“Our communities cannot bear to see another death at the hands of police,” said Andrea Caupain Sanderson, co-founder of the BIPOC Education Coalition of Washington.

But the pursuit law has frustrated some town and city officials across the state, who say they’re seeing an increase in crime and a feeling that police don’t have the tools to deal with it.

‘Brazenness’

More than 250 mayors, city council members, police and other local government officials signed a letter to lawmakers this month urging them to revise the pursuit law. The letter said “too many suspects are simply driving off — sometimes in a dangerous manner” and cited a poll of 500 likely voters, 79 percent of whom support giving police more discretion to pursue.

Republicans have blasted the pursuit restrictions, saying the Legislature must act to alter them. In a statement last week, state Senate Republican Leader John Braun accused Democrats of favoring policies that “would essentially tell criminals that they can keep stealing cars and catalytic converters and using stolen cars to smash storefronts, without fear of being pursued.”

Kitsap County Sheriff John Gese said in an interview the law’s impact was swift, leading to a “brazenness” among suspects as word got around that police could no longer give chase in most cases.

“Almost immediately, we ran into the phenomenon of running into stolen cars and they wouldn’t stop,” he said.

Recently, a man wanted on a $1 million felony arrest warrant for a string of auto thefts and burglaries has been spotted multiple times by officers, but sped away on a motorcycle, according to the Sheriff’s Office.

Gese said he understands the dangers inherent in high-speed police pursuits, but believes the current law has gone too far in limiting them. “I do think there is a balance of doing it the right and careful way, but giving us the leeway,” he said.

Not all law enforcement leaders are eager for more police chases. In a Seattle Times op-ed last August, former King County Sheriff John Urquhart defended the current law, comparing police pursuits to “playing Russian roulette with a 4,000-pound bullet fired down the street.” He recalled changing the Sheriff’s Office pursuit policy after a 90 mph chase of a shoplifting suspect in 2016 ended with one death and three injuries.

The proposal to create a task force on police pursuits, co-sponsored by Dhingra and other Democrats, also passed through committee last week.

Senate Bill 5533 would require the state Criminal Justice Training Commission to create a work group including law enforcement and community representatives to come up with a “model vehicle pursuit policy” and report back to the Legislature.

It also would seek to create a grant program to help police agencies buy new equipment to catch criminal suspects without high-speed pursuits, such as the GPS trackers used by Redmond police, drones and automated license plate readers.

Rule said she supports that proposal, too, but added it would be a mistake if lawmakers only pass the task force this session.

“The trouble is we need action now. There are people across the state who are being victimized by crime,” she said. “We have to do something on an emergency basis.”

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