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)

In surprising move, state Senate advances changes to police pursuit law

On a 26-23 vote, the Senate rewrote a set of reforms for how and when police can engage in chases.

OLYMPIA — A controversial bill giving police greater ability to undertake pursuits narrowly passed the Senate on Wednesday, a stunning move pulled off less than two hours before a critical cutoff for action on the legislation.

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.

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 vehicular pursuit poses a serious risk of harm to others.

It passed 26-23 with 16 Democrats and 10 Republicans pushing it across. Thirteen Democrats and 10 Republicans dissented.

By beating a 5 p.m. deadline for action on a non-budget bill originating in its chamber, the Senate keeps alive a conversation on one of the session’s most divisive pieces of legislation.

Wednesday’s vote deals with an element 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 need probable cause to arrest someone before initiating a pursuit rather than reasonable suspicion. Many law enforcement officials and elected city leaders say the revision emboldened suspected criminals to flee crime scenes before authorities question them, because they are confident of not getting pursued. Civic leaders contend it has helped fuel a surge in violent and property crimes, especially 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.

In January, after the Senate Law and Justice Committee held a public hearing on the bill, the chair, Sen. Manka Dhingra, D-Redmond, said it would not advance any further. The issue of vehicle pursuits had become too politicized and she did not believe the Legislature was the best body to make changes.

Meanwhile, a similar bill was moving through the House.

On Wednesday, with action unlikely in the House, Senate Democratic leadership pulled the legislation directly to the floor. That’s where Dhingra brought forth an amended version closely mirroring the House bill.

Its new provisions cover training of officers and role of supervisors in the conduct of chases. The hope, she said, is pursuits will increase public safety but not result in members of the public getting hurt.

Sen. John Lovick, D-Mill Creek, a former state trooper and Snohomish County sheriff, sponsored the bill.

“I know this is a difficult decision for most members,” he said in the floor debate on final passage. “I hope this legislation will bring our communities together. I hope this legislation will strike a balance to give our fantastic police officers the tools they need to do their jobs.”

Republicans offered amendments to add auto theft and reckless driving to the list of crimes for which chases could be undertaken. Democrats voted them down.

“This doesn’t go far enough,” said Sen. Keith Wagoner, R-Sedro-Woolley. “I’m sorry I cannot support this bill today.”

Senators in both parties said they too hoped for more but did not want the conversation to end at this stage of the session.

“Anything is better than what we have now,” said Sen. Ann Rivers, R-La Center. “I think it is as good as we can get for now.”

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

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