By Ryan Packer
Two years ago, as part of a slate of police reform bills, state legislators passed a law barring police officers from pursuing people who fail to pull over when an officer directs them to do so. The only exceptions were if the officer had probable cause to believe the person had committed a violent or sexual crime, or when the officer had reasonable suspicion—a lower standard—to believe they were driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol.
On Thursday, the House’s House Community Safety, Justice, and Reentry committee advanced an amended version of House Bill 1363, which would allow pursuits under the lower reasonable suspicion standard for a broad number of offenses, including any violent offense, but would not allow police pursuits for any non-violent property crimes. Organizations like the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs have blamed the change in the law has been blamed for a spike in property thefts statewide, particularly stolen vehicles. Law enforcement agencies across the state had been putting their weight behind the original version of the bill, sponsored by Rep. Alicia Rule (D-42, Blaine), that would have allowed pursuits for all criminal offenses.
Committee chair Roger Goodman (D-45, Redmond) put forward the new version of the bill, which he said is intended to “limit the scope of this bill, but also to keep the conversation going.” The bill includes a 2025 expiration date; if the legislature doesn’t adopt new pursuit rules before then, the rules for pursuits would automatically revert to the 2021 law.
Only one member of the committee, Rep. Darya Farivar (D-46, Seattle), voted against advancing HB 1363, saying she wants to make long-term changes to the current law this year. While 1363 moves forward on the House side, Democrats in the state senate are advancing a proposal to take a broader look at pursuits.
“I’ve never seen, in my 31 years of law enforcement, the state and the condition of our state when it comes to open lawlessness and complete disregard for our laws that keep the community safe.”—Kent Police Chief Rafael Padilla
When they passed police pursuit law in 2021 reform, legislators said they wanted to reduce the number of high-speed police pursuits because of the risk they posed to the public, including pedestrians. According to an analysis by retired University of Washington researcher Dr. Martina Morris, just three people (all bystanders) have been killed as the result of police pursuits since the new law went into effect in July 2021, compared to nine in a comparable period immediately pre-reform.
Advocates for changing the law, including multiple mayors (though not Bruce Harrell), the Association of Washington Cities (AWC), and the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs, said the new law resulted in significant numbers of people taking advantage of it to flee police.
Many cities (though not Seattle) included the issue at the top of their official legislative agenda for 2023. “In 2021, AWC was an engaged supporter on many of the police reforms that the Legislature adopted, but we understand that law enforcement is complex and that sometimes legislation needs revising when the impacts become clearer,” the AWC more than 200 local elected officials said in a letter to legislators this week. ”In the case of the limits adopted on police pursuits, we think revisions are necessary to improve public safety outcomes in our communities.”
“I’ve never seen, in my 31 years of law enforcement, the state and the condition of our state when it comes to open lawlessness and complete disregard for our laws that keep the community safe,” Kent Police Chief Rafael Padilla told the House Community Safety, Justice, & Reentry committee last month.
Police accountability advocates argue that rolling back the law would erase progress toward reform. “From our view, we’ve got something that’s working. It’s not fun, it’s not comfortable, we have a lot of work to do as a society to figure this stuff out. This bill absolutely does not represent what that positive change and momentum needs to be,” Kurtis Robinson, president of the Spokane NAACP speaking on behalf of the Washington Coalition for Police Accountability, told that committee.
Morris’ analysis found that the law has been effective. (An earlier version of the analysis included two deaths caused by a driver who believed he was being pursued. Morris removed that incident during a review of all the pursuit incidents after its inclusion was questioned.)
“Estimates are that on the order of 30 percent of all pursuits end in an accident. When I’m talking about the fatalities, these were the key thing we were interested in, but it’s the tip of the iceberg in terms of the damage that’s caused by pursuits.”—Retired UW researcher Dr. Martina Morris
Morris told PubliCola the benefits of reducing police pursuits go beyond lives saved. “There are public safety risks from pursuits. Fatalities are just one of the parts of the collateral damage with these vehicle pursuits,” she said. “There are also injuries, property damage, and estimates are that on the order of 30 percent of all pursuits end in an accident. When I’m talking about the fatalities, these were the key thing we were interested in, but it’s the tip of the iceberg in terms of the damage that’s caused by pursuits.”
The data primarily comes from the website fatalencounters.org, a database created by researchers at the University of Southern California to track all types of deaths occurring nationwide where police officers are involved. Individual police departments are not required to provide information on these events on their own, so the information has to be obtained through media reports.
An alternative to HB 1363 is currently working its way through the state senate. Senate Bill 5533, sponsored by former Washington State Trooper John Lovick (D-44, Lake Stevens) would keep current state law in place until 2024 while a work group within the state’s Criminal Justice Training Commission, comes up with a model pursuit policy for the state to adopt, and do so by fall of 2024. This proposed model policy would outline exactly when police should be able to pursue suspects, and would be created in coordination with representatives of the state’s law enforcement groups.
Any model policy would likely only be binding on police departments who wanted to adopt a more loose pursuit policy; cities like Seattle, which had more stringent requirements on when officers could pursue, would be able to leave those policies in place, leaving open the possibility that some departments could decide to stick with current state law.
But the bill creating a model policy has come under fire by some Republicans, like Sen. John Braun (R-20, Centralia) who said it would be “letting legislative Democrats off the hook” in an op-ed in the Seattle Times last week. Braun is pushing for an immediate fix.
But waiting would also provide additional time for Washington to see how the current law is impacting public safety— whether Dr. Morris’s conclusions continue to bear out. “I can’t create more time for this law to have been in place,” she said of the relatively small sample size at the heart of her study. “But the legislature can.”