Thursday, May 23, 2024

Police given more leeway to pursue suspects

Rollbacks on police pursuits win bipartisan support after intense deliberations

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OLYMPIA—The Legislature approved new rules that give police more leeway to engage in high-speed pursuits, which will become law on June 5, 2024.

“As you know, the people of the state are suffering, increasing rates of crime, property, crime, violent crime,” said Rep. Jim Walsh, R-Aberdeen. “When I talked to cops and sheriff's deputies, they told me the one thing more than anything else that we need is the ability to chase bad people.”

In 2021, the Legislature approved a measure that restricted police. Under that standard, vehicular pursuits were limited to when officers had “probable cause” that a person in a vehicle committed a violent offense, a sex offense, domestic violence-related offenses, driving under the influence of alcohol or trying to escape arrest. The standard was changed back to “reasonable suspicion” in 2022. 

This year, in an effort to relax these standards even more, less violent crimes such as theft were added to the list of crimes that can result in a chase.

“We have become the nation's leader in car theft,” said Brian Heywood, prime funder of Let’s Go Washington, which promoted the initiatives. “We've had skyrocketing increases in our car insurance rates. This is a direct result of an increased car theft caused by the inability of the police to pursue.”

Some opposed the change because they believe vehicular pursuits can actually put more people in danger. James McMahan of the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs explained that the law does not change the fact that officers must engage in “the balancing test.” 

For example, if an officer saw someone in a school zone with expired tabs, they likely would not begin a chase because it poses more harm to chase than it does to not.

Still, experts on the issue argued that vehicular pursuits are not effective and are too harmful. 

Dr. Jeffrey Albert, who has been studying police pursuit nationally for 30 years, cited a case from 2018 when Milwaukee, Wisconsin, took away restrictions on police pursuit. 

“Our data showed that pursuits increased 100%, 98%, something like that, and it was basically signing a death sentence to people on the road, because the police started chasing everything,” Albert said. “The deaths, the crashes, the destruction, was horrible, and that's been seen in other cities around the country.”

Josh Parker, Senior Counsel at the policing project at NYU School of Law, cited similar studies arguing against the bill, but also drew attention to how it can put officers at risk. 

“Not surprisingly, these pursuits result in officer injuries and deaths at alarming rates,” Parker said. “A recent study found that pursuits account for more than 5% of all line of duty officer deaths.”

Ryan Spurling, Mason County Sheriff, explained how officers see pursuits. 

“I don't think any of us like pursuits,” Spurling said. “I've been doing this 36 years and pursuits are dangerous. We need to find other alternatives. We don't choose to pursue; the person chooses to flee.”

Spurling went on to explain that oftentimes when people choose to flee, they have committed multiple crimes, and this is where “the balancing test,” comes in. 

“My family drives in the community,” Spurling said. “I don't want officers pursuing somebody for a taillight out and hitting my family head on and killing them, but that’s the balancing test. There's no question we have to balance that out every day.”

While the initiative passed with bipartisan support, some lawmakers still voted no. 

Rep. Debra Entenman, D-Kent, said she worked very hard with community stakeholders in changing the law in 2021, as well as the Coalition for Police Accountability. As a Black woman, Entenman emphasized that she feels this initiative is silencing voices and urged a no. 

“We were trying to ensure that there was less contact in communities of color with police,” Entenman said. “Because statistics have proven that when there is that contact, Black and brown young men especially do not get to go home to their families.” 

Sen. Manka Dhingra, D-Redmond, also cited that her own district's standards do not align with this standard of pursuit, as they are more restrictive. Other lawmakers echoed this explaining they believe this discretion should be left to individual jurisdictions. 

Walsh and others who have closely worked on the initiatives explained individual jurisdictions still have the power to impose more restrictions if they want to, but that this sets the standard. 

“An agency can always be more restrictive. The problem is the baseline in state law is already too restrictive,” Walsh explained. “2113 restores it to a rational standard by which the law can be enforced.”

The Washington State Journal is a non-profit news website funded by the Washington Newspaper Publishers Association Foundation.

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