Washington cops get to chase people in cars more often and with less evidence after lawmakers this session expanded the number of allowable pursuit scenarios. 

But law enforcement lobbying groups still aren’t satisfied. The Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs (WASPC) and Republican lawmakers have promised to return next session to further weaken restrictions around police pursuits. 

Lawmakers passed the original restrictions as part of a series of police accountability policies in 2021, during what State Representative Roger Goodman (D-Kirkland) called a “huge progressive window.” However, the political pendulum swung back this session, with law-and-order voices dominating discussions, Goodman said. 

If WASPC does ask lawmakers to lift more restrictions on pursuits next session, Goodman swore that, as chair of the House Community Safety, Justice, and Reentry Committee, he wouldn’t look at any modifications to car chase policy for “quite awhile.” 

Then again, he and State Senator Manka Dhingra (D-Redmond), who is Goodman’s counterpart in the Senate, both promised the pursuit laws would not change this session. When Dhingra suspended Senate rules to resurrect the vehicle pursuits bill and it passed out of the Senate, Goodman said he expected the bill to die in the House. But it passed 57-40.

Washington Coalition for Police Accountability (WCPA) Lobbyist Paul Benz gave Goodman credit for mitigating some of the proposed policy changes on pursuits. However, overall Benz said he heard Democratic lawmakers this session wanted to avoid pissing off the police, especially those legislators who straddle the center line.

“They really had to calculate how many times am I going to ‘vote against’ law enforcement, so to speak,” Benz said.

Gov. Jay Inslee is expected to sign Senate Bill 5352, which will add more pursuable offenses and lower the amount of evidence cops need to chase people. The previous statewide pursuit policies barely lasted two years. In that time, some experts point to an approximately 73% drop in the number of people killed by a police chase.

What Did Change, What Will Change

Before breaking down the changes in law, two quick key terms: Probable cause and reasonable suspicion. 

Cops need probable cause to arrest you or to get a search warrant, but they can stop you on the street and ask you questions based on reasonable suspicion. 

To reduce the number of deaths of innocent bystanders, in 2021 lawmakers aimed to limit the types of crimes that could trigger pursuit and require cops to have probable cause showing that the person they wanted to chase committed one of those crimes. Those crimes included violent or sexual offenses and jailbreaks, though the bill kept drunk driving at the reasonable suspicion standard. 

The pursuit also needed to be necessary to either identify or arrest the person, and the person needed to pose an imminent threat to public safety–more of a threat than, say, a high-speed chase through streets crawling with unsuspecting drivers and pedestrians.

Under the new law, cops need only reasonable suspicion to pursue someone for any of the allowable crimes. That list of offenses now also includes certain domestic violence offenses, even at the misdemeanor level. Cops also need to be trained in assessing the level of risk a person poses.

State Representative Darya Farivar (D-Seattle) worked on the bill in 2021 to restrict pursuits, which she called “inherently fatal.” She said she was glad lawmakers didn’t add property crimes, such as car theft, to the list of pursuable offenses. Still, Farivar voted against the bill.

She argued law enforcement officers did not provide strong data to show the change in policy caused an increase in car thefts, which many supporters highlighted as a crime that should trigger a police chase.

During the debate on the Senate floor about the bill, Senator Dhingra pointed out that states such as Oregon and California, where pursuit restrictions did not change, have also reported increases in car thefts. Car thefts also started trending up in Washington in 2020–a year before lawmakers passed new restrictions. Car theft increases are associated with a rise in used car prices, Dhingra said. 

Pursuits Scrutinized Across the Country

This month, the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) is reexamining its pursuit policy after a study showed that one in four police chases since 2018 resulted in injury. The report highlighted one case where the driver of a stolen pickup, who was running from police, plowed into a car and killed the two men inside.

In Louisiana, a police officer chasing a car thief killed two teen girls and critically injured a young man when the officer ignored a red light and collided with the girls’ car. The officer was arrested as a result of the pursuit.

In Houston, three families are suing the City over a pattern of reckless car chases, which kill bystanders, particularly those in the Black neighborhoods, where the most chases seem to take place, according to a story by The Root. 

Supporters of the changes to the pursuit law told lawmakers multiple times to give law enforcement more discretion and then cops would make the right choices, Farivar recounted. But, she argued, she’s never seen police discretion lead to more safety. 

“Clear laws lead to increased safety so that everybody understands what is supposed to be happening,” Farivar said. 

She’s nervous about the next two years, about the possibility of a spike in the number of Black people, Indigenous people, people of color, and people with disabilities who could die as a result of the change.