Washington lawmakers expect to pass an initiative out of committee Friday allowing police to initiate a car chase if they suspect a person in a car has broken any law, significantly loosening regulations around police pursuits. If the Legislature passes the initiative, which they look likely to do, law enforcement agencies would be allowed to expand their use of pursuits beyond just the most serious crimes. Lawmakers previously sought to restrict police car chases due to their often deadly consequences. Studies show that in recent years such chases have killed on average two people per day across the US. 

At a joint House and Senate committee hearing Wednesday scheduled to discuss Initiative 2113, staff explained that it would allow police to start a car chase if officers had any reason to believe the person violated any law.

Several lawmakers asked staff some pointed questions about the bill to highlight the dangers of police pursuits, referencing a new investigative report from the San Francisco Chronicle.

The Chronicle’s reporting found that the number of people killed in police pursuits soared in recent years, with 2020 and 2021 being the “deadliest on record.” The investigation also showed that pursuits were four times more likely to kill Black people than white people, and that statistic held true “whether the person is a suspect, a passenger in a fleeing vehicle or a bystander.” When reviewing police pursuit cases where a person died, the Chronicle found that the vast majority people died over “traffic infractions, nonviolent crimes, or no crime at all.” 

Right now, Washington law prevents vehicle pursuits over low-level crimes like these, but libertarian hedge fund manager Brian Heywood, the financial backer of the initiative, told lawmakers the state needed to relax standards for police pursuits because cops feel disempowered to chase people. 

Heywood pointed to an incident on Tuesday where someone allegedly raped a woman in a bathroom at Bellevue College. He said police at one point believed they saw the suspect in a car, but they felt they couldn’t chase the person. Sen. Jesse Salomon (D-Shoreline) pointed out that the current law allows police officers to pursue if they have a reasonable suspicion the person committed a sex offense or a violent offense, and so Heywood’s example “doesn’t square with what the law is.”

Heywood then defended his example, saying from what he understood police did not pursue because they weren’t completely convinced the driver had committed the crime and did not feel they had the authority to chase them. At the very least, the new law has “caused confusion on what people feel like they are allowed to do,” Heywood argued. 

But Heywood got basically everything wrong about what happened in Bellevue, apart from the fact of a reported rape. Bellevue Police Spokesperson Seth Tyler said in an unrelated incident police spotted a stolen vehicle near the college with people inside who did not match the description of the suspect. Police tried to pull that car over and it fled, at which point police stopped pursuing. Tyler added that the Bellevue Police Department has a more restrictive policy on police pursuits than state law, and so they would not have pursued the driver regardless of whether this initiative was in place.

However, Heywood’s misinformation about how the current law let an alleged rapist go free and other false narratives around the way current laws stymie police pursuits seem to be winning the day. Despite some pushback from lawmakers in the hearing about the dangers of police pursuits, State Representative Roger Goodman (D-Kirkland), who chairs the House Community Safety, Justice, and Reentry Committee, said he expects the initiative to pass out of his committee, and he plans to support it despite his past opposition to relaxing police pursuit policies. The Senate expects to do the same.

Goodman said he believed all this “police can’t chase criminals” rhetoric would sway people to vote for the initiative come November anyway. Hyperbolic phrases like that make for a much easier campaign platform than explaining to people, “Actually, cops can chase criminals, but only when they have probable cause, and it's for a really serious, violent crime, or domestic violence, or driving under the influence.”

Goodman also said he felt alright passing the initiative because it does not change other parts of state law, such as a requirement for officers to undergo extra training to be eligible to initiate pursuits and for officers to perform a balancing test of whether they create more danger chasing someone then letting them go. 

Goodman’s choice to take solace in these last vestiges of police pursuit reform seems to signal his and other lawmakers’ unwillingness to go another round on this issue. Unlike other initiatives that legislators plan to pass this session, no one seems to have a strategic plan to make changes to statewide pursuit policy next session. Of course, that dynamic may change given the high likelihood that police may end up killing innocent bystanders while pursuing people for stealing televisions if departments across the state adopt laxer policies. Maybe then lawmakers can finally create a pithy slogan to support bans on deadly, high-speed pursuits over low-level, nonviolent crimes.