By The Herald Editorial Board
For months before the start of the state legislative session, a oft-stated priority for law enforcement agencies and local public officials have been changes to a 2021 law — among a slate of policing reforms adopted that year — that limits when and how police can engage in pursuits of motorists suspected of crimes.
Prior to 2021, police could engage in pursuits if they had “reasonable suspicion” to believe the driver or a passenger in a vehicle had committed a crime. The law currently ups the threshold to a higher standard of “probable cause,” limits the chases only to incidents involving violent or sexual offenses, escapes or impaired driving and requires the officer to have authorization from a supervisor for the chase.
The result, law enforcement groups and others have claimed, have been increases in vehicle thefts and drivers refusing to stop for speeding and other traffic offenses. The State Patrol has said it counted more than 900 instances between Jan. 1 and May 17 of last year where drivers refused to pull over for a traffic stop.
Noting the frightening increase in traffic deaths in recent years — more than 600 fatalities on Washington state roads in the first nine months of last year — that’s ample reason for concern regarding motorists’ reckless driving, impaired driving and excessive speeds.
As well, the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs cited a marked jump in vehicle thefts after passage of the pursuit law and other laws, a 93 percent increase between when the law went into effect in July 2021 and March of 2022.
Yet there are statistics on the other side of the argument that argue for keeping the current law substantially as it is.
The Washington Coalition for Police Accountability, which backs the 2021 law and other legislation, notes a significant reduction in deaths that follow active vehicle pursuits. Looking at similar time periods before and after the law took effect, a report found 11 fatalities following pursuits before the law’s change, but just three after. A breakdown of those deaths showed three subjects, three passengers and six bystanders among the 11 killed; and three bystanders after.
Among two fatalities that occurred before the law’s passage were the deaths of a cyclist and a 97-year-old woman when a driver — who had been “doing doughnuts” in a parking lot — fled police in late August 2020, struck and killed the cyclist then crashed into a Marysville home, killing the woman while she slept in bed. The driver pleaded guilty last year and was sentenced to 22 years in prison.
The coalition also questions the data on vehicle thefts, noting the increase began after the start of the pandemic but before the law’s passage and was similar to increases across the nation and specifically in California, Oregon and Colorado.
What the available data make an argument most for, however, may be the need for more and better data: on the total number of pursuits and canceled pursuits; on fatalities, injuries and losses to private and public property resulting from pursuits; and on arrests made later when pursuits were canceled but police work continued.
Already, a Senate version of a bill to amend the pursuit law appears unlikely to advance further. Sen. Manka Dhingra, D-Redmond, chair of the chamber’s Law and Justice Committee, has said she’s not interested in reforming the current law, citing the decrease in fatalities, specifically to innocent bystanders, reports The Herald’s Jerry Cornfield.
But a House version of the bill HB 1363, is now before its Safety, Justice and Reentry Committee. That bill would restore the standard for pursuit to “probable cause” and would require an officer to notify supervisors of a pursuit, but would not require a supervisor’s approval. The proposal also would OK pursuits for any criminal offense.
There’s reason to consider easing the standard to “reasonable suspicion” from “probable cause.” That’s a judgment call that law enforcement officers are trained and expected to make throughout their daily work.
But the current law’s apparent reduction of fatalities — especially among innocent bystanders — calls for reserving pursuits for instances under the existing standard, including violent crimes. Risking a fatality from a pursuit would seem justifiable when it involves an armed shooting suspect; far less so for someone suspected of shoplifting.
Another exception lawmakers might consider, in light of the state’s increase in traffic fatalities, would be for motorists who — prior to a pursuit — are observed driving recklessly or at high rates of speed and thus pose a reasonable likelihood of risk to others on the road. Again, the risks of pursuit can be justified as a threat to the safety of others, but not for nonviolent offenses, as the current House bill would seem to allow.
It’s easy to understand the frustration of an officer over a driver who refuses to pull over when the switches for lights and siren are flipped on, but the current law does appear to work, even for those with a poor understanding — or impaired thinking — regarding the law.
A recent example: A woman behind the wheel of a pickup on Highway 27, east of Spokane, and suspected of drunken driving, refused to pull over for a State Patrol trooper on Jan. 8. The woman, The News Tribune reported, called 911, claiming the trooper’s pursuit of her went against her “constitutional rights.”
Undeterred by her legal reasoning, the trooper — with probable cause, as the driver had been seen swerving, and with authorization from a supervisor — continued the pursuit. About 7 miles beyond where the pursuit started, troopers laid a spike strip, which the driver rolled over, sending her into a field and ending the chase. The woman was arrested for felony eluding, felony flight, obstructing an officer and impaired driving.
Until more data is available that can guide passage of a workable and safe standard on police pursuits — and to avoid a pendulum swing between extremes each legislative session — the existing law, as demonstrated, should be substantially left in place.