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

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

House passes bill giving police greater ability to undertake pursuits

The measure would allow a police officer to initiate a chase with reasonable suspicion a crime has been committed.

OLYMPIA — A controversial bill giving police greater discretion to undertake pursuits narrowly passed the House early Tuesday, unwinding a central piece of policing reform passed two years ago.

The measure, Senate Bill 5352, allows 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.

It passed 57-40, with 38 Democrats and 19 Republicans in support. Meanwhile, 19 Democrats and 21 Republicans opposed. Every member of Snohomish County’s delegation voted for the bill except one, Rep. Lillian Ortiz-Self, D-Mukilteo, who was excused.

“I understand the community’s concerns. I think this strikes a reasonable balance for pursuing criminals and keeping people safe on the street,” said Rep. Strom Peterson, D-Edmonds.

Rep. Sam Low, R-Lake Stevens, said he does not “think it goes far enough but it is a step or two in the right direction. We’ll take what we can get this year and come back next year and ask for more.”

The vote at 12:30 a.m. revealed the political chasm created by an element of policing reform passed 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.

By toughening the requirement for when officers could carry out a pursuit, supporters said communities became safer with fewer high-speed chases and, in turn, fewer innocent bystanders injured or killed.

But law enforcement officials and elected city leaders contend the revision emboldened suspected criminals to flee crime scenes before authorities question them, because they are confident of not getting chased. They assert it has helped fuel a surge in auto thefts and property crimes.

House members were divided along three lines in the floor debate: Those opposed because it rolled back policing reforms, those opposed because it still restricted pursuits too much, and those supportive who considered it bit of progress on a heated public safety issue.

“I believe the Legislature struck the right balance and we need to hold onto that,” Rep. Darya Farivar, D-Seattle, said in opposing the bill. “I fear we are choosing politics over individuals.”

Rep. Greg Cheney, R-Battleground, stood up and “reluctantly” urged colleagues to back it.

“It’s better than what we have now but it’s not good enough,” he said.

In an interview after the vote, Rep. Carolyn Eslick, R-Sultan, said passage was the only option.

“We had to crack the door open for making changes,” she said. “A ‘no’ vote would have been devastating to our community and our police. I could not do that to them.”

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. And it limits vehicular pursuits to situations where the subject of the pursuit poses a serious risk of harm to others. If the risk to bystanders is deemed greater than that of not apprehending the person, the chase must be called off.

Other provisions require an officer to notify a supervisor officer when they initiate a chase. And it says an officer cannot engage in a pursuit unless they’ve completed specific emergency vehicle operator training and be certified in at least one pursuit intervention option.

“We appreciate the work our representatives did to correct the current pursuit law,” Snohomish County Sheriff Adam Fortney said in a statement. “However, it does not address vehicle thefts, burglaries, assault on a police officer, or other serious assaults. I do not support allowing burglary or assault suspects to continue to drive away.

“While this is a step in the right direction,” he added, “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.”

Civic leaders in Snohomish County who lobbied for reforming the rules voiced appreciation too.

“We’re happy the Legislature is making changes that give more discretion to officers and their supervisors,” Sultan Mayor Russell Wiita said. “I don’t think anybody’s pleased with the end result but it’s better than where we were.”

Several mayors, including Wiita, formed Snohomish County Mayors and Business Leaders for Public Safety last fall. Revamping pursuit rules is one of the group’s priorities.

“We’re happy to see they’ve gone to the reasonable suspicion (threshold) that will give tools back to law enforcement to actually do law enforcement,” said Lake Stevens Mayor Brett Gailey, a former Everett police officer, who represented the coalition. “We do think stolen vehicles should be in there, on the list.”

Because the House made changes, it will return to the Senate for concurrence. That’s not guaranteed with the sharp divide among Democrats in both caucuses. The bill passed the Senate 26-23 with 16 Democrats and 10 Republicans pushing it across. Thirteen Democrats and 10 Republicans dissented.

Gov. Jay Inslee is expected to sign it. He has said he wants to see something reach his desk resetting the dial on this policy.

Those engaged in this debate say the conversation isn’t over.

“Legislators showed leadership and support for victims of crime. However, there is more work to be done on this important issue in the future,” said Steve Strachan, executive director of the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs.

Leslie Cushman, spokesperson for the Washington Coalition for Police Accountability, said: “What is disappointing about this vote is the continued reliance on fear and crime rhetoric and a lack of reflection of how ineffective pursuits are at addressing the types of crimes that are mentioned, such as car theft and gun violence.

“Should this bill be signed into law, we hope that the Legislature and the law enforcement community give this iteration time to be evaluated,” she added.

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

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