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WA lawmakers consider whether to tweak or repeal laws governing police chases

caption: Patrol cars and ambulances are shown at the intersection of Third Avenue and Pine Street on Wednesday, Jan. 22, 2020.
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Patrol cars and ambulances are shown at the intersection of Third Avenue and Pine Street on Wednesday, Jan. 22, 2020.
KUOW Photo/Megan Farmer

Regulating police vehicle pursuits emerged as a highly charged issue at the state Legislature in recent years. Lawmakers enacted strict regulations in 2021 in the wake of widespread anti-police protests, then loosened those restrictions slightly last year amidst reports of suspects brazenly fleeing police stops.

The issue is back on the agenda during this session, in the form of an initiative and other legislative proposals.

Steve Strachan, executive director of the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs, said he’s seeking multiple tools from lawmakers to find what he sees as the right balance on vehicle pursuits.

“We don’t want more pursuits," Strachen said. "We just want to send a strong message to people who choose to flee that that’s a bad idea and they’re going to get caught.”

Strachan said police pursuits are “inherently dangerous” and should be limited. But he said “the law changes that we saw in 2021 along with a large suite of police reform bills has changed sort of the environment that we’re seeing out there with driving."

“The changes led to a marginal decrease in the number of pursuits but it led to an exponential increase in the number of people fleeing from lawful traffic stops and fleeing from scenes of crimes,” he said.

This year, “we have proposed having greater flexibility in ability to pursue,” Strachan said, “but also to really kick up technology and greater sentencing and greater consequences for both adults and juveniles if they choose to flee from the police.”

This could include mandatory monitoring, mandatory sentences, and impoundment of vehicles, “because that’s going to be meaningful to a lot of people,” Strachan said, and then using fixed cameras to track stolen vehicles.

Strachan said the main goal is to curb reckless driving and traffic deaths.

State Sens. John Lovick (D-Mill Creek) and Manka Dhingra (D-Redmond) have advocated for strict limits on police vehicle pursuits in the past because of the dangers they present. They are now sponsoring SB 6200, which contains some of the increased penalties sought by WASPC.

Their bill would make people arrested for fleeing police subject to the same penalties as street racing. Vehicles used to attempt to elude the police would be subject to impound. Those arrested for that crime would be subject to mandatory home monitoring, and if convicted could face longer probation.

“Eluding the police is a public danger on our streets, just like illegal racing is," Sen. Dhingra said in a statement. "Sen. Lovick and I have been working with the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs in the interim to ensure we are holding people accountable for this unsafe behavior. This bill is the result of that work. It aligns the penalties for eluding with the penalties for illegal racing.”

Legislators also have to decide how to respond to Initiative 2113, which was recently certified by the Washington Secretary of State’s office. That initiative would repeal state restrictions on pursuits and allow local law enforcement to decide whether “the safety risks of failing to apprehend or identify the person are considered to be greater than the safety risks of the vehicular pursuit under the circumstances.”

Lawmakers could approve the initiative, let voters decide, or put an alternative on the ballot as well.

House Republican Leader Drew Stokesbary (R-Auburn) urged passage of the measure, saying, "Washington House Republicans fully support Initiative 2113 and believe it should be quickly passed by the Legislature during the 2024 legislative session. Limiting vehicular pursuits of police officers has had disastrous consequences for communities and exacerbated our state's public safety crisis.”

The Washington Coalition for Police Accountability advocated for the current law and said in a statement it is opposed to the initiative.

“Initiative 2113 seeks to drag the State backward, allowing pursuits for any infraction, which makes the streets more dangerous for all of us,” the group said. “Our current pursuit policy saves lives — unrestricted pursuits just don’t make sense.”

Sen. Dhingra also opposes the initiative.

“The issue of police pursuits has been before the Law & Justice Committee each year for three years now, and last year we passed legislation that struck a judicious balance by lowering the threshold for a pursuit," she said. "This initiative would take us backward and make the streets of Washington less safe.”

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