Mar 15, 2024 - Politics

How Washington's police pursuit law is about to change

Illustration of several police cruiser lights, some of them transparent.

Illustration: Brendan Lynch/Axios

Police officers in Washington state will soon be able to chase far more suspects who flee in vehicles, after state lawmakers voted to roll back restrictions passed in 2021.

Why it matters: Police agencies said the state's limits on vehicle pursuits hampered their ability to fight crime.

  • But those who opposed rolling back the rules argue that police car chases too often hurt or kill civilians, while also endangering officers.

Catch up quick: Under existing law, Washington police can initiate a car chase only when a fleeing person is suspected of certain crimes — a violent offense, sex offense, domestic violence assault, vehicular assault, driving under the influence or escaping from prison or jail.

  • Vehicle chases for lower-level crimes, such as property theft, are banned.

The latest: The new law approved this month by Washington's Legislature, I-2113, will allow cops to once again pursue any driver if they have reasonable suspicion that they have violated the law.

What they're saying: "I believe this change will help law enforcement be more effective," state Rep. Jim Walsh (R-Aberdeen), who sponsored I-2113 and chairs the state Republican Party, said during a public hearing last month.

The other side: "Allowing pursuits for any infraction makes the streets more dangerous," Sonia Joseph of the Washington Coalition for Police Accountability said during last month's hearing.

The fine print: Even under the new initiative, police will only be able to start a car pursuit if the risks of letting a person go are deemed greater than the risks of chasing them, and the person fleeing is deemed a "threat to the safety of others."

That's a lower standard than under the 2021 law, which required that the fleeing person pose an "imminent threat" of harming someone.

  • It's also lower than the amended standard lawmakers adopted last year, which required a "serious risk of harm to others."

The big picture: The Police Executive Research Forum (PERF), a national think tank, recommends that police chase fleeing suspects only in cases of violent crimes and when there is an "imminent threat" of a suspect committing another violent offense.

  • The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) identified 455 fatal crashes involving police vehicle pursuits in 2020, according to a 2023 PERF study paid for by the NHTSA and the Department of Justice.

What's next: Both the Seattle Police Department and the King County Sheriff's Office are reviewing their vehicle pursuit procedures in light of I-2113's passage, they told Axios in written statements.

Yes, but: SPD doesn't plan to roll back its rules to the degree I-2113 allows, SPD general counsel Rebecca Boatright wrote.

  • "SPD's policies are and will remain more restrictive than state law," Boatright wrote, noting "the inherent risk of any pursuit."

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