Susanna Johnson speaks during an interview on Tuesday, Dec. 5, 2023 in Everett, Washington. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

Susanna Johnson speaks during an interview on Tuesday, Dec. 5, 2023 in Everett, Washington. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

Sheriff: New police pursuit policy under review amid state rollback

New state standards once again allow police to pursue a suspect without probable cause for a crime — and give departments discretion to adjust policy.

EVERETT — A committee of Snohomish County sheriff’s deputies has completed recommendations for new police pursuit standards — but authorities have declined to release them to the public, for now.

New state pursuit standards went into effect June 6, once again allowing police to pursue a suspect without probable cause for a crime. The new law, passed in March, gives police departments around the state the option to loosen their pursuit standards to “reasonable suspicion” rather than the higher standard of probable cause.

This week, the sheriff’s office declined to provide The Daily Herald with a copy of the recommendations until its middle management team finishes reviewing them.

“We recognize the importance of finding the right balance between holding people accountable who break the law and protecting the safety of our residents, so we are prioritizing … getting it done quickly,” Johnson wrote in an email Monday.

A spokesperson for the Deputy Sheriff’s Association did not respond to a request for comment this week.

In 2021, state legislators tightened pursuit standards, among other police reforms, following the murder of George Floyd. The policy barred law enforcement from pursuing suspects fleeing cars unless they established probable cause for a violent crime.

Earlier this year, lawmakers rolled back that reform.

“This is a dramatic change to our operations, which impacts not only all of unincorporated Snohomish County, but many area cities that we contract police services for,” Johnson wrote. “I appreciate the expertise and dedication our staff who are working to finalize our new policy and training curriculum.”

Before the rollback this year, sheriff’s office pursuit policy simply aligned with state law, according to the July 2023 Snohomish County Sheriff’s Office Law Enforcement Manual.

Police pursuits put bystanders in danger, the manual notes. Guidelines help officers prioritize public safety in unpredictable situations.

“It is recognized that vehicular pursuit situations are not always predictable,” the policy read. “Decisions made pursuant to this policy will be evaluated according to the totality of the circumstances reasonably available at the time of the pursuit.”

A deputy’s pursuit conduct must be “objectively reasonable,” according to the manual. A deputy cannot be punished for not engaging in a pursuit for public safety reasons.

Under any standards, pursuits can turn deadly.

In April, a Kenmore man struck and killed an 83-year-old woman on Highway 525 while fleeing from The Pacific Northwest Violent Offender Task Force, according to charging papers.

Around 6 p.m. April 11, officers began chasing Robert Rowland, 37, near Merrill Creek Parkway and 23rd Drive W with probable cause for assault and kidnapping his girlfriend. Rowland eventually stopped at a 7-Eleven less than a mile away, but officers determined it was “too dangerous” to detain him, according to the charging papers.

Toward the end of the pursuit, the suspect turned onto southbound Highway 525. When Highway 525 crossed with Highway 99, he got off, made a U-turn and got back on Highway 525 going the other direction, according to police. Deputies kept chasing.

To get away from police, Rowland crossed a grass median to drive south on northbound Highway 525, according to charging papers. Once he started going the wrong way, police reported terminating the pursuit. He turned around to see if he got away from police moments before crashing into Trudy Slanger, 83, in a GMC Yukon, according to the charges. Slanger died at the scene.

In 2020, former Sheriff Adam Fortney ended the use of “black box” devices that monitored patrol cars. At the time, Fortney said the tool gave deputies the feeling “Big Brother” was watching them. The telematics system was one of numerous pursuit-related reforms instituted by the previous sheriff, Ty Trenary, that Fortney rolled back when he took office.

After the middle management team reviews the new recommendations, they will go to the deputy union, known as the Snohomish County Deputy Sheriff’s Association, for another review on Monday, sheriff’s spokesperson Courtney O’Keefe said. At that point, they could be finalized.

Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated which team still needed to review the recommendations. This story has also been updated.

Maya Tizon: 425-339-3434; maya.tizon@heraldnet.com; Twitter: @mayatizon.

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