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Washington law enforcement org weighs in on upcoming changes to pursuit law


(The Center Square) – In less than two months, law enforcement agencies across Washington state will have a less restrictive set of rules when it comes to vehicle pursuits of fleeing suspects.

The Washington State Legislature this session loosened restrictions on law enforcement pursuits in the form of passing Initiative 2113 to allow police to pursue any driver if they have reasonable suspicion that they have violated the law.

Police agencies across the state had pleaded with lawmakers to reconsider restrictions placed on law enforcement in the wake of reforms that followed the killing of George Floyd by police in Minneapolis and the subsequent movement to defund police.

In 2021, the state Legislature passed a bill that was signed into law by Gov. Jay Inslee that required that the fleeing person pose an “imminent threat” of harming someone as the threshold for police to engage in a vehicle pursuit.

It will now be up to individual agencies in Washington to set the policies and procedures for pursuits, just as it was before the 2021 law.

Steven Strachan, executive director of the Washington Association of Sheriff’s and Police Chiefs, said the new law, which goes into effect in June, won’t result in things being fixed overnight.

“It’s going to be a transition and the phrase I’ve been using is it’s going to take some time to put the toothpaste back in the tube,” he said. “We’ve all seen the unintended consequences of the law change in 2021 and the incredibly restrictive bright lines on police pursuits, which created a sense of impunity out there.”

The same thinking applies to people choosing to flee law enforcement.

“Anytime you’re talking about human behavior and decision making on the fly, that’s going to take time to change,” Strachan said.

Those who spoke against I-2113 argue innocent lives are lost in police pursuits and they fear those numbers will go up with loosened restrictions.

In February 2023, The Center Square reported on a controversial study by Dr. Martina Morris that critics contend inflated overall fatality numbers in police pursuits. The study was subsequently taken down from the website hosting the study.

Sen. Patty Kuderer, D-Bellevue voted against I-2113.

“The initiative would permit a chase for any violation of law,” she said. “That includes an expired tab, a broken taillight, loud music, any infraction whatsoever could allow law enforcement to engage in a high speed chase.”

Strachan disagrees with the assertion police will give chase without careful consideration.

“We have to remember there is still a balancing test and law enforcement officers are still going to use their discretion to make sure the safety of the entire public is paramount,” he said.

WSPAC will push hard in the next legislative session for a bill that would strengthen penalties and consequences for people who choose to flee, Strachan said.

Senate Bill 6200, which WASPAC helped craft, was introduced with bipartisan support this session, but it died in the House.

The bill, according to Strachan, also established mandatory monitoring for both juveniles and adults who flee, impoundment of the vehicle, and greater use of technology.

“It includes fixed license plate reader systems and something called Star Chase which is like an air tag attached to the vehicle so you can track the car and then also air support like helicopters and drones so we can get better at locating, arresting and prosecuting people who flee from the police,” he explained.

Strachan added that the biggest frustration for law enforcement in recent years has been a lack of consequences.

“So, if you have greater sentencing, monitoring, technology; that’s going to massively change that equation,” he said. “We’ve created greater flexibility for pursuits yes, but we would also like to see 6200 passed, to provide for significant consequences for people who choose to flee.”