A man led police on a high speed chase through north Snohomish County on Thursday, Dec. 10, 2020. (Snohomish County Sheriff’s Office)

A man led police on a high speed chase through north Snohomish County on Thursday, Dec. 10, 2020. (Snohomish County Sheriff’s Office)

House committee steers controversial vehicle pursuit bill forward

Revisions will make it easier for officers to engage in a chase. Changes would expire in 2025 under new language.

OLYMPIA — A controversial bill giving police a wider berth for initiating pursuits cleared a House committee Thursday, keeping alive one of the most divisive issues in this year’s legislative session.

But changes proposed in the legislation would expire in two years under language added at the behest of an Everett lawmaker.

The House Community Safety, Justice and Reentry Committee approved House Bill 1363 to allow a law enforcement officer to initiate a chase with reasonable suspicion a person in a vehicle has committed or is committing a crime. Current law sets a higher threshold of probable cause in order to engage in a pursuit.

Under the bill, the crimes for which a pursuit can be undertaken are limited to a violent offense, a sex offense; domestic violence-related offenses, driving under the influence of alcohol or trying to escape arrest. Provisions adopted Thursday would expire July 1, 2025.

Also Thursday, the committee passed a separate bill creating a work group to draft a model vehicular pursuit policy. It would be due to the Legislature by the end of this year.

Rep. Mary Fosse, D-Everett, penned the amendment to sunset the relaxed pursuit rules. By 2025, she reasoned, the model policy could be implemented and state law aligned with it.

“Our approach on this has to be thoughtful and intentional,” she said in the committee hearing. “We all want our communities to be safer. We know police pursuits in fact don’t make communities safer.”

Thursday’s decision centers on one piece of a package of policing reform passed in 2021 in response to the 2020 murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis and other high-profile police killings — reforms aimed at reducing the potential for violence and death in police responses.

It toughened the requirement for when officers could carry out a pursuit. They now needed probable cause to arrest someone before initiating a pursuit rather than reasonable suspicion.

Many law enforcement officials and elected city leaders say the revision has emboldened suspected criminals to flee crime scenes before authorities question them because they are confident of not getting pursued. Civic leaders contend it’s helped fuel a surge in property and violent crimes, and auto thefts.

On the other side, those seeking greater police accountability contend communities are safer as fewer innocent bystanders have been injured or killed with the decline in high-speed chases.

Lawmakers looked at rolling back the standard last session. A potential redo passed the House on a 86-12 vote in March then lapsed in the Senate.

This year, a similar bill got introduced by Sen. John Lovick, D-Mill Creek. But the chair of the Senate Law and Justice Committee refused to give it a hearing.

“It is so politicized that I don’t believe the Legislature is the best body to now make changes on this,” Sen. Manka Dhingra, D-Redmond, said at the time.

That shifted focus to the House committee where the companion bill, HB 1363, had 40 lawmakers, from both parties, signed on as sponsors.

Rep. Roger Goodman, D-Kirkland, the committee chair, couldn’t get the bill passed by the panel as originally written. He rewrote it to closely mirror the 2022 legislation backed by 86 members.

He hoped his handiwork and the sunset clause would keep the conversation going “wherever it may go,” he said.

Mayors Russell Wiita, of Sultan, and Brett Gailey, of Lake Stevens, were in Olympia Thursday for the Association of Washington Cities conference. Each said while they need to read the provisions closely, they were glad to see the bill is alive in the process.

“There’s a vehicle for those conversations to move forward,” Wiita said. “Obviously the chair of the committee in the Senate didn’t want a vehicle. What we’re hearing is the votes are there to pass it, probably in both chambers. You’ve just got to get it to the floor.”

Snohomish County Sheriff Adam Fortney has said the revised pursuit rules is a contributing factor to an increase in brazen criminal behavior. On Thursday, he emailed a statement urging lawmakers to continue working on it.

“We appreciate the movement and effort by our representatives to correct the current pursuit law. This amended bill allows for progress on domestic violence assaults and we certainly support that,” he said.

“However, this amended bill does not address vehicle thefts, burglaries and other serious assaults; crimes where we often do not have suspect information and lose the opportunity to identify them.” he said. “We must continue to work towards a balanced approach that will send a message to criminals that they cannot commit a crime and drive away from law enforcement.”

There continues to be strong opposition in both chambers.

Rep. Darya Farivar, D-Seattle, serves on the House community justice committee and is a board member of Washington Coalition for Police Accountability. She cast the lone no vote Thursday.

“I really believe the Legislature did strike the right balance,” she said, referring to the 2021 bill. “I really fear that today we’re choosing politics over individuals.”

Jerry Cornfield: 360-352-8623; jcornfield@heraldnet.com; Twitter: @dospueblos.

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