OLYMPIA — Police officers may soon be able to take part in more chases following their recent criticism over a standard that they say has severely limited their ability to pursue criminals.
The controversial bill that passed the state Senate 26-23 on Wednesday would allow law enforcement to pursue if they have reasonable suspicion that a person in the car has committed or is committing a violent offense, a sex offense, a vehicle assault offense, a domestic violence assault, an escape or a driving under the influence offense. Officers would only be allowed to pursue if the subject of the pursuit poses a serious risk of harm to others.
Both parties remained split on the bill, which passed with 16 Democrats and 10 Republicans supporting it.
“This bill strikes a balance and gives our fantastic peace officers the tool they need,” bill sponsor and former state trooper Sen. John Lovick, D-Mill Creek, said on the floor.
As part of a package of police reform passed in 2021, lawmakers limited when law enforcement officers can engage in car chases, requiring them to need probable cause — the legal standard to arrest someone. Previously, the standard was “reasonable suspicion,” which is a lower bar for officers to meet.
Mayors, sheriffs and police chiefs, including some in Spokane, have said the new standard has made their cities less safe, citing rising crime, traffic collisions and people fleeing traffic stops. Police accountability advocates and families of victims killed by police say the higher standard is necessary to reduce deaths related to police chases, especially of pedestrians and bystanders.
Law enforcement have fought for the standard to be lowered. The bill that passed Wednesday would do that, but not quite to the extent that many want.
Sen. Mike Padden, R-Spokane Valley, said parts of the bill were “admirable,” but that he couldn’t support it.
“We’re in effect trying to micromanage our law enforcement agencies across the state,” Padden said.
Senate Minority Leader John Braun, R-Centralia, said the bill does not go far enough.
“This is a half step in the right direction but not nearly sufficient to address the issues we have in our state right now,” Braun said.
Some Republicans, on the other hand, voted in favor of the bill because it was the next step in fixing the problem that they have made a priority this legislative session.
“Anything is better than what we have now,” Sen. Ann Rivers, R-La Center, said.
During Wednesday’s debate, Republicans tried to add amendments to the proposal that would add instances to when a law enforcement officer could pursue, such as if someone in the car is committing reckless driving, vehicle theft or an offense that is “reasonably likely to cause physical pain or injury.”
None of the amendments passed.
After hesitancy from many Democrats to bring the bill up for a vote, the move to debate the change in the state Senate was a surprising one. Sen. Manka Dhingra, D-Redmond, who had previously said she would not hear the bill in her committee, offered the amended bill that passed Wednesday.
“No one wants people to be hurt,” Dhingra said. “We want our law enforcement officers to protect the public. We want them to protect everyone in the public, and unfortunately, that has not been the case.”
Dhingra said she hoped the version that passed would present the right balance for law enforcement to use their best judgement in a way that will benefit the people.
The bill has some requirements for when officers can pursue. It would require a supervising officer, pursuing officer or dispatcher to notify law enforcement agencies and surrounding jurisdictions that could be affected by the pursuit.
The officer who is pursuing would be required to communicate with other officers, the dispatch agency and supervising officers about the pursuit. As soon as possible, officers would have to create a plan for ending the pursuit.
Pursuing officers must also complete an emergency vehicle operator’s course in order to take part in the pursuit.
A number of Democrats pushed back on the bill, saying it would lead to more deaths of innocent bystanders.
“This policy has weighed heavy, heavy on my heart, but I think there are many victims we’re ignoring in this conversation,” Sen. Yasmin Trudeau, D-Tacoma, said.
Trudeau said pursuits create a dangerous situation and said the Legislature should look at ways law enforcement can use technology to monitor pursuits and help with de-escalation.
Sen. T’wina Nobles, D-Fircrest, said the state did a good thing when they decided that vehicle pursuits don’t work for every situation and every crime.
“Fear is what I think got us here,” Nobles said.
The bill must still pass the state House of Representatives before becoming law. A similar bill had been making its way through the House but did not receive a floor vote before the cut-off time for bills this session.