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Mayors and police across WA push to change 'police pursuit' law

A police SUV drives down a street lined with a white fence and homes.
Ted S. Warren
/
AP
In this April 27, 2017 photo, a police car drives in Long Beach, Wash.

It's election season, and the Washington state legislative session is three months away. Mayors and police around the state have been pushing legislators to change a law limiting when officers can chase suspects in their patrol cars.

The so-called "police pursuit" law, passed in 2021 as part of a bundle of police reform legislation, said police can’t give chase to suspects in cars unless they have probable cause of a violent crime or sex crime. The idea was to limit the number of deaths that happen during police pursuits.

Advocates and even some police say that it’s saving lives. According to data from the Fatal Encounters Project and Next Steps Washington, two citizen-led monitoring efforts, only one person has died in police pursuit in Washington since the legislation was implemented – as opposed to seven in 2020 and seven in 2019.

But many mayors and police say the legislation is limiting their ability to chase criminals even when they arrive at the scene of a crime and the suspect is there. That’s emboldening criminals to rob businesses, police say.

Earlier this month, someone stole a truck from the Chevy dealership in Shoreline, Washington, and crashed it through the doors of a cigar shop, a marijuana dispensary and a Wells Fargo bank branch before police arrived, according to Captain Ryan Abbott, a spokesperson for the King County Sheriff’s Office.

"They attempted to stop the truck. And the truck just left," Abbott said. "They were obviously going faster than what they should have been, but it wasn't insane driving by any means. They knew we couldn't stop them. And our officers and deputies turned their lights off immediately and did not pursue."

The concern cuts across the aisle: Earlier this month, Democrat, Republican and non-partisan mayors of 15 cities in Snohomish County announced they would push lawmakers to change the police pursuit law, among other police reforms.

In Everett, the largest city that signed on to the push, Democrat mayor Cassie Franklin said they had a pursuit policy in place that worked. The new law restricts police too much, she said.

“It's definitely emboldened criminals,” Franklin said. “And so I think that could be tightened up and we could allow officers to use better judgment, which is what we were doing in Everett quite successfully. We didn't have high speed pursuits through downtown because officers made the good judgment to not do that, but they had the ability to make those judgment calls.”

John Urquhart, former King County Sheriff, has spoken out in support of the law. He still remembers a 2016 chase in South Seattle where a shoplifter was fleeing police in a chase that at times went over 90 miles per hour. Eventually, she went over the center line and in the ensuing crash, died and injured several people.

“Yet under our policy, which was really pretty restrictive, one of the most restrictive probably in the state, that pursuit was within policy. And I decided right then and there we need to change our policy,” Urquhart said.

He took most, but not all, property crimes out of the category where police could pursue. The state law on police pursuit went further.

Urquhart thinks it needs some fine-tuning – for instance, police should be able to chase burglars, he believes, and should only need "reasonable suspicion" rather than the higher legal standard of "probable cause" before they chase.

He also pointed to the data showing deaths during police pursuits have dropped since the legislation passed.

A bill introduced earlier this year by Democrats and Republicans to change the police pursuit law and some other use-of-force reforms didn't make it through the state senate. The Washington state legislature's next session begins in January.

Scott Greenstone started off working at his community college newspaper before interning at NPR’s Weekend All Things Considered and covering homelessness for The Seattle Times. He co-produced the “Outsiders” podcast with KNKX, which was named one of TIME’s top 10 podcasts of 2020.
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