In pondering changes to Washington’s police-pursuit laws, legislators should heed the concerns of law enforcement and citizens. A task force would only delay necessary improvements.
House Bill 1363 would allow more police discretion regarding vehicle pursuits. The bill is co-sponsored by local Republicans Stephanie McClintock and Greg Cheney, as well as Democrats Sharon Wylie and Monica Stonier. A companion bill in the Senate has been co-sponsored by Republican Lynda Wilson and Democrat Annette Cleveland.
Despite bipartisan support, the legislation faces an uncertain future. Sen. Manka Dhingra, D-Redmond and chair of the Law and Justice Committee, insists the current law is working as intended, and The Seattle Times reports: “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.’”
If that ends up being the case, it will be an instance of lawmakers overthinking the issue instead of responding to a pressing need.
In 2021, as part of a series of police-reform laws, lawmakers passed restrictions on police pursuits. The current law dictates that law enforcement (a “peace officer” in the vernacular of state law) may not engage in a vehicular pursuit unless a specific exception applies.
Those exceptions include probable cause to believe a person in the vehicle has committed a violent crime or a sexual offense or is an escapee. Other exceptions exist for imminent threat or suspected driving under the influence. A pursuit also may be authorized by a supervising officer.
Overall, the need for police reform is clear. Washington lawmakers have taken several reasonable steps in recent years to ensure that police are working for the benefit of the public and that officers who violate that premise are held accountable. But, according to those closest to the situation, restrictions on police pursuits have had unintended consequences.
Law enforcement officials and city leaders throughout the state have reported that suspects are fleeing with impunity, secure in the belief they will not be followed.
The Washington State Patrol last year recorded more than 3,100 instances of drivers fleeing from stops. And Clark County Sheriff John Horch has said: “People are wondering what’s the purpose of law enforcement if you get behind someone in one of those felony situations and we turn the lights on and they run, and we can’t stop them. They’re wondering what the good of law enforcement is doing.”
Testimony from law enforcement would seem to belie claims that the current law is working as intended. The intent was to reduce high-speed chases that endanger bystanders and other motorists; the result has been suspected criminals ignoring lawful stops — and thereby endangering the community.
The current version of HB 1363 allows pursuits for reasonable suspicion — rather than the more stringent standard of probable cause — for violations such as violent or sexual offenses, escapes or DUIs.
But regardless of what permutations the bill might go through, suspected criminals need to know that fleeing from the police is not a viable option. As Kitsap County Sheriff John Gese told The Seattle Times, “I do think there is a balance of doing it the right and careful way, but giving us the leeway.”
A task force should not be required to figure out what is right and careful when it comes to keeping our communities safe.