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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Initiative that would give Washington cops more legal leeway in vehicular pursuits draws public debate

State Rep. Jim Walsh, R-Aberdeen, testifies before the Joint Legislative Committees on Community Safety, Justice, & Reentry and Law & Justice in a hearing about a ballot initiative that would erase restrictions for police pursuits in Washington on Feb. 28, 2024, in Olympia.  (Ellen Dennis / The Spokesman-Review)

OLYMPIA – An initiative that would give Washington police more authority to chase suspects in vehicles sparked a lively debate Wednesday at a public hearing at the Capitol.

Last year, more than 400,000 Washingtonians signed a ballot measure that would overturn the state law preventing an officer from embarking on a car chase unless they have “reasonable suspicion” a person has committed certain crimes, such as a violent offense or driving while drunk or high on drugs.

Supporters of Initiative 2113 argue the current law on the books prevents police from doing their jobs to catch suspected criminals and keep communities safe. Those opposed to the initiative argue police chases are dangerous for everyone involved and that criminals aren’t deterred by them.

In 2021, the Democrat-led Legislature passed a group of laws intended to tighten guidelines for law enforcement in the wake of the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis by a police officer. Among those laws was one that required police to have probable cause that a suspect in a car committed a violent crime, a sex offense, was driving intoxicated or fleeing arrest before chasing them in a vehicle.

Law enforcement groups have been calling on Washington lawmakers to loosen the restrictions placed on police pursuits in 2021.

Gov. Jay Inslee answered those calls and in 2023 signed a more lenient police pursuit law, swapping out the words “probable cause” for “reasonable suspicion” in the list of requirements.

In the past five years, more than 3,000 U.S. residents have been killed in police vehicle pursuits, including more than 500 bystanders, the San Francisco Chronicle recently reported. And police chases kill four times as many Black people per capita as they do white people, the study found. Only one in 15 of the people killed in police pursuits the past five years was reportedly a suspect being chased for a violent crime.

Still, some first responders and Washington residents argue last year’s changes to police law aren’t enough, and more power needs to be afforded to police.

State Rep. Jim Walsh, R-Aberdeen, sponsored Initiative 2113 and testified before a joint legislative committee Wednesday. He said police officers have reported they can’t effectively do their jobs without the “ability to chase back.”

“We are at a critical point in this state’s history and the public safety of the people of this state,” Walsh said. “Initiative 2113 takes a very narrow touch to do the one thing, the single action we can take, to most effectively fight crime in Washington state.”

Geoffrey Alpert is a University of South Carolina criminology professor who has conducted research on high-risk police activities for the past 30 years. At Wednesday’s hearing, Alpert testified that he used to support police pursuits but changed his position after seeing the data.

“If all you’ve got to do is enforce laws, chase everyone. Do what they did in the ’80s. Chase them until their wheels fall off. But the carnage on the roadways is going to be horrible,” said Alpert, who earned his doctorate from Washington State University.

Also in his testimony, Alpert pointed to a study released last year that found pursuits should be limited unless a violent crime has been committed and a suspect is an imminent threat.

Initiative 2113 is just one of six ballot measures backed by Let’s Go Washington, a political action committee dedicated to repealing laws passed by the Democrat-led state Legislature. Brian Heywood, a business owner from Redmond, has bankrolled the initiatives, spending more than $5 million to get them on the November ballot.

Because the effort to make police chases common again is an initiative to the Legislature, its future lies in the hands of lawmakers who have three options on what to do with it. They can do any of the following:

• Adopt the initiative as written

• Reject it and let voters decide

• Refuse to act on it

Two more Let’s Go Washington-backed citizen initiatives were discussed in public hearings this week. Initiative 2081 would create a “bill of rights” to make parents the primary stakeholders in public education. The other, Initiative 2111, would create a statewide ban on income tax.

A legislative committee is scheduled to vote on all three initiatives Friday. Washington’s 2024 legislative session is set to adjourn March 7.