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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Washington Legislature weighs changes to police pursuit after law enforcement criticism

A Spokane Police Department Ford Police Interceptor in 2014.  (Colin Mulvany/The Spokesman-Review)

Hours of testimony, social media campaigns and lots of anecdotes over the past year about police pursuits or the lack of them have swirled across Washington state.

Mayors, sheriffs and police chiefs say a 2021 Washington state law that significantly limit s when police can pursue suspects has hampered their ability to keep their communities safe.

They cite rising crime, traffic collisions and people fleeing traffic stops as evidence for their case.

Meanwhile, police accountability groups say the new law is reducing deaths related to police chases, especially of pedestrians and bystanders.

However, there’s no consistent data collection on police pursuits or deaths related to them in Washington state.

The lack of data is a national problem. The National Traffic Safety Administration drastically understated the number of people killed in police pursuits for decades, a 2015 USA Today report found.

Now, legislators are considering either rolling back the law and giving discretion back to law enforcement officers, or studying the problem through a work group.

Data collected from publicly available information by Next Steps Washington, an advocacy group that opposes expanding police pursuits, shows a 67% drop in the number of people killed during pursuits since the law was enacted. That’s a drop from nine deaths to three, all of whom were bystanders.

A bipartisan proposal to reduce the pursuit standard is making its way through the state House of Representatives, but it could get caught up in the state Senate where Law and Justice Committee Chair Sen. Manka Dhingra, D-Redmond, has said she does not think the state needs to pass the new policy. She has indicated she will not hear the policy if it makes it to her committee.

Instead of needing probable cause – the legal standard to arrest someone – that a violent crime was committed, House Bill 1363 would reduce the standard to reasonable suspicion.

It would also remove the current requirement that a supervisor authorize the pursuit. The bill would only require that a supervisor be notified.

Dhingra said the policy in place has saved the lives of innocent bystanders who would be killed during high-speed chases.

She supports another proposal that would not change the standard but would require the Washington State Criminal Justice Training Commission to study pursuits and come up with a model policy by 2024.

But Republicans think waiting that long would be too late.

“People are getting hurt,” Senate Minority Leader John Braun, R-Centralia, told reporters last week. “We are doing harm with the bill as it is.”

Braun said he would support studying the policy, but only if the state goes back to the reasonable suspicion standard while they do it.

House Minority Leader J.T. Wilcox, R-Yelm, called on Democratic lawmakers to speak out if they want to hear the pursuit bill in their chamber.

“They have some big roles to play in both chambers in getting this critical bill through,” Wilcox said.

Some Democrats in the House are more outspoken about their support for the bipartisan bill to reduce the standard for pursuits back to reasonable suspicion. It currently has 20 Democratic co-sponsors.

The House passed a similar version of the bill last year, but the proposal failed in the Senate.

House Majority Floor Leader Monica Stonier, D-Vancouver, said there are new members of her caucus this year who will be hearing the policy for the first time, and the conversation is “alive and well.”

Their support, and the broad support of law enforcement statewide, may not matter, with Dhingra continuing to say she will not bring the bill up for a vote.

Local decision-making

Law enforcement leaders say they should determine on the ground who to pursue, when and for how long, based on the circumstances of the case.

Spokane County Sheriff John Nowels recalls being a young deputy who was focused on catching criminals. He worked the swing shift from 2 p.m. to 10 p.m.

When he would start to chase someone, his supervisor would terminate the pursuit.

“Every time we would initiate a pursuit, he would terminate it almost immediately,” Nowels recalled.

One day, Nowels and some other young deputies teased their boss about that tendency. The supervisor came back at them harshly, telling Nowels he didn’t understand. Families were commuting home from work or dropping kids off at practice, and their lives weren’t worth risking over someone driving a stolen car.

“There was a lot of wisdom there,” Nowels said.

Car chases during busy traffic hours are almost always a no-go for Nowels, he said. But a violent criminal getting away, that’s frustrating, he added.

“There are times where we’re going to be pursuing people who are clearly a danger to the public. And that decision to pursue, the responsibility for that decision lies with the supervisor that’s on scene that night, the deputy who’s initiating to pursue, the people who have that information, right then and there,” Nowels said. “It shouldn’t be made by a legislator over in Olympia.”

Spokane Police Chief Craig Meidl said criminals are blatantly fleeing from police, now that they know officers can’t pursue them.

“It really broadcast to the entire state, what law enforcement could and couldn’t do,” Meidl said. “And there are those out there who took advantage of that.”

Even before the 2021 law, Spokane police had a number of restrictions on what crimes they could pursue for, Meidl said. That included violent crimes, DUI’s and egregious reckless driving.

Officers weren’t generally chasing people for property crimes, Meidl said.

“We had that latitude to evolve on a case-by-case basis,” Meidl said.

Meidl said officers are now limited in their ability to apprehend people who commit violent crimes. Probable cause is too high a standard in many cases, he said.

Meidl cited data showing a 48% increase in vehicles failing to stop for law enforcement since the 2021 law was passed. Over the same period of time before and after the law took effect, the number of vehicles failing to stop grew from 871 to 1,287.

Other officials, including Spokane Mayor Nadine Woodward, say crime is up and that the No. 1 concern she hears from citizens is public safety. However, data submitted to the FBI by Spokane Police show crime overall dropped 8.8% in 2021 compared to 2020.

Both Woodward and Meidl along with Nowels support HB 1363 and rolling back the standard for pursuits to reasonable suspicion.

Positive change, limited data

Martina Morris, a longtime professor of sociology and statistics, recently retired and started working on data analysis for a number of police accountability organizations. Morris said the data is trending in the right direction.

She acknowledges that it hasn’t been a long observation period and there’s no standardized way of tracking pursuits or related deaths. That’s why Morris and the Washington Coalition for Police Accountability are pushing to keep restrictions in place.

Data on police pursuit-related deaths often isn’t collected at all, and when it is, different jurisdictions collect it with different criteria.

While the data set Morris collected is small and covers a small window of time, it does show a marked decrease in pursuit-related deaths, she said.

“These data are not adequate to make me feel confident that the decline we’ve seen is going to persist. There’s only one way to know is to see the data over time,” Morris said. “If they roll back the policy, we’ll never know what the policy could have accomplished.”

Kurtis Robinson, a Spokane activist and organizer who serves on the boards of numerous social justice organizations, argued law enforcement blamed the law instead of trying to act within it when he testified before the house committee.

“The question on the table is why didn’t officers choose to operate within the scope of the law that allows probable cause?” Robinson said. “Why did they choose not to act that way?”

He argued that a work group would allow time for better data collection.

Andrea Caupain Sanderson, co-founder of the BIPOC Education Coalition of Washington, said the community cannot handle another death at the hands of police.

“Safety demands the Legislature keep the pursuit law in place until further study can take place,” Caupain Sanderson said, noting the limited data available shows a positive change. “The law is working.”

Further study

There are multiple bills that would establish a work group at the Washington State Criminal Justice Training Commission to further study the issue and create a model policy, along with a grant program to fund alternatives to pursuits.

Dhingra supports the Senate version of the bill, SB 5533, and it passed out of the Law and Justice Committee last week. The House is also looking at a similar bill, HB 1586. The work group would conclude by Dec. 1 and have findings prepared for the 2024 legislative session.

Meidl and Nowels don’t support the bill without a rollback to broader pursuit standards.

Nowels argued the Legislature will use the work groups, largely made up of community and activist groups, as the reason for maintaining the probable cause standard.

“We need help now,” Meidl said. “None of this, to me, is about law enforcement, every single part of this is about giving us the tools to keep our community safe. So that proposal is too little, too late, and there’s going to be a tremendous amount of damage that continues until this law is fixed.”

The portion of the bill both police leaders support is a potential grant program that would allow their agencies to expand alternatives to officer pursuit in a car.

The Spokane Police Department uses Starchase, a GPS-tracking dart system, which Meidl would expand if the department received grant funding.

Nowels said his agency would likely use the money to expand their drone program.

Morris and the Washington Coalition for Police Accountability support the bill, arguing more time to study the matter is important. Morris hopes an amendment will be brought to require tracking of pursuit-related deaths, providing a better and more consistent data set.

“The only way we’re going to have a rational decision about this … is if we have data, statewide data,” she said.

Staff reporter Laurel Demkovich contributed to this story.