May 8, 2023 - News

New Washington law allows more police vehicle chases

Illustration of police lights shown through the shape of a police hat.

Illustration: Brendan Lynch/Axios

A new Washington state law lets police more easily pursue suspects who flee in vehicles, relaxing restrictions the Legislature imposed on police car chases in 2021.

Why it matters: Police said those prior rules forced them to let many criminals get away.

  • But those who wanted to keep the previous law unchanged argued police chases too often end up hurting or killing people, including bystanders.

Catch up quick: The 2021 Legislature enacted strict limits on when police can launch a vehicle pursuit, banning car chases for low-level crimes such as theft.

  • They also required police to have probable cause to pursue suspects for violent crimes and sex crimes — a higher evidentiary standard than before.

Latest: After widespread pushback from police agencies and some city leaders, state lawmakers voted last month to once again let police chase suspects in violent crimes and sex crimes based on reasonable suspicion, the lower standard in place before 2021.

  • Officers will also be able to chase people suspected of domestic violence assault and vehicular assault without having probable cause under the revised law, which went into effect last Wednesday after being signed by Gov. Jay Inslee.

Zoom in: Last week, the Seattle Police Department told its officers to not engage in any more vehicle pursuits unless they have gone through an emergency vehicle operator's course in the past two years and received training on pursuit intervention — two additional requirements of the new law.

  • In a screenshot of an email shared with Axios, Chief Adrian Diaz said that means "suspending pursuits for the vast majority of the department," who lack that training.
  • The Seattle Police Department told Axios in a statement that the city is "working to better understand the scope of these new requirements" while ensuring the department's pursuit policy — and officers' training — complies with the law.

What they're saying: James Schrimpsher, a vice president of the Washington Fraternal Order of Police, said this year's update to the pursuit law "gives us back the ability to do our job."

  • While he said some law enforcement officials wanted to go further, such as allowing officers to chase suspects who are suspected of stealing vehicles or engaging in other crimes, he thinks the bill struck "a good balance."
  • Schrimpsher, who is the police chief in Algona, added that many departments — including his — have already had their officers go through the required training, so that won't be an issue for all agencies.

The other side: The Washington Coalition for Police Accountability, a group that includes family members of people killed by police, opposed rolling back the 2021 law.

  • "Any pursuit is dangerous to human beings that come in the path of that pursuit," the coalition's lobbyist, Paul Benz, told Axios. He said the coalition will fight against any further loosening of police pursuit restrictions in future years.

What we're watching: Whether lawmakers and police seek to expand vehicle pursuits further in the 2024 legislative session.

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