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Police vehicle pursuits could be hot topic at WA Legislature – again

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Citing “a growing sense of lawlessness,” some new coalitions of police, mayors and prosecutors say they will press state legislators to revisit current restrictions on police vehicle pursuits in the upcoming session. But defenders of the restrictions passed in 2021 say the new law is meeting its goal of reducing deaths among innocent bystanders.

In a Nov. 22, 2022, letter to legislators, Pierce County Prosecutor Mary Robnett said, “We urge the Legislature to repeal this prohibition and empower law enforcement to investigate crime, stop cars, detain suspects, and hold criminals accountable.” The letter was signed by 16 local mayors.

Under the current law a police officer may only initiate a vehicle pursuit if the officer has reasonable suspicion of a DUI, or probable cause for a violent crime or sex crime. Members of law enforcement say since the law passed nearly two years ago, pursuits have diminished and drivers routinely flout orders to stop.

Steve Strachan, executive director of the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs, said the new law “creates such a high bar that it has changed the atmosphere to one where criminals just sort of have a knowledge that they can drive away and nothing can be done.”

Strachan said there’s broad agreement that police vehicle pursuits are dangerous, and many jurisdictions already had restrictions in place. He said he favors a balancing test that would still limit pursuits, but give police more discretion. WASPC called changing the law one of their top priorities for the coming session.

A bill that passed both chambers last year but failed to make it to the governor’s desk required that pursuits meet four criteria including that “the person poses a public safety risk, and the safety risk of failing to apprehend or identify the person is greater than the safety risks of the vehicular pursuit under the circumstances.”

State Senator and Deputy Majority Leader Manka Dhingra, a Democrat, said at a legislative preview convened by Seattle CityClub on Friday that she views the current restrictions as successful at reducing the number of innocent people killed by police vehicle pursuits.

She said the impact of the restrictions has been exaggerated. Dhingra said she was on a call where a detective said new state laws were hindering sexual assault investigations, which prompted Dhingra to follow up. “I said, 'I’m sorry, in all my 18 years, of being a prosecutor, I have yet to see a case where a sexual assault predator gets in a car and flees and there’s a chase. Have you ever come across a case like that?'” She said the detective backed down, adding, “That’s just an example of how it’s politicized and not necessarily based on the rationale of what is good policy.”

Dhingra also said police can often arrest someone later rather than initiating a vehicle pursuit, and the person then faces an additional felony charge of eluding police.

But Senate Republican Leader John Braun disagreed, saying arresting people after the fact isn’t as straightforward as it sounds. “I would disagree pretty strongly with the notion that this is being politicized,” he said.

Still, Braun said the two parties aren’t as far apart on the issue as the public might believe. He said there’s broad support for some restrictions on vehicle pursuits.

“My belief is that we need not to go back to our law prior to 2021, but provide our law enforcement additional flexibility as they make these very difficult decisions on very short notice,” he said.

Gov. Jay Inslee defended the state's 2021 police reform laws on TVW’s Inside Olympia on Dec. 15, saying crime has increased nationwide.

“This is a problem all over the United States. This is not just a problem because of police accountability laws we passed in the state of Washington," he said.

In terms of vehicle pursuits by police, Inslee said he “would be amenable to some change involving, for instance — if the officer sees a stolen car. I think there could be room to add one crime, if you will, that would allow a pursuit.”

But Inslee added, “I’m not sure there’s a lot of appetite to go beyond that.”

Members of the Washington Coalition for Police Accountability say they will press legislators to maintain the current pursuit restrictions.

Enoka Herat, police practices and immigration counsel at the ACLU of Washington, said the law is accomplishing its primary goal — saving innocent lives.

“We think the law threaded the needle in the way it was supposed to,” she said. “Deaths of bystanders were reduced by half when the law went into effect."

She said there have been three such deaths in the last year and a half.

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