Fix pursuit law, don't study it
Last updated 2/21/2023 at 12:10pm
A key issue needing legislative action during this year’s session is public safety – and for good reason.
In recent years, Washington has seen an alarming increase in crime, some of it the result of recent laws passed by the Democratic majority in the Legislature that soften penalties for criminal behavior or makes it more difficult for law-enforcement officers to do their jobs to protect our communities.
The issue of vehicle pursuits by police is exhibit A. Democrats in the Legislature changed state law in 2021 in the form of House Bill 1054 by severely limiting the ability of officers to pursue suspects. Before the change, officers needed “reasonable suspicion” to initiate a vehicle pursuit of suspects. The new law restricts the majority of vehicle pursuits to “probable cause.” As a result, officers have been forced to watch criminals drive off. It also has emboldened criminals to commit other crimes and victimize citizens.
According to the Washington State Patrol, between 2014 and 2020 an average of 1,200 suspects per year fled from police. In 2022, after the pursuit standard was changed to probable cause, 3,100 suspects fled — an increase of more than 150%. Before the change in this law, the statewide record for stolen cars in a single year was 30,000. That climbed by 50% in 2022 to 45,000 stolen vehicles.
Proponents of the 2021 law restricting vehicle pursuits point to incidents when innocent bystanders have been struck and killed by either the fleeing driver ‘s vehicle or the officer’s vehicle. Law-enforcement officers don’t want to be involved in injuring or killing innocent people. Before the anti-pursuit law was passed, police were already trained on when to terminate, or not initiate, a pursuit of a suspect.
According to the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs, auto thefts have continued at a high level, with the most notable increase occurring right after the police pursuit law change in 2021. In recent years, our state has experienced an alarming increase in catalytic converter thefts. Victims of such thefts are stuck with vehicles that can’t be driven until the converter is replaced, which is both expensive and time-consuming since catalytic converters are hard to find.
The law restricting vehicle pursuits has led to more dangerous roads and highways in Washington, and it has allowed criminals to act without fear of being arrested. It’s no wonder our state has seen an increase in various types of crime thanks to criminals who now don’t fear being captured and arrested.
Citizens throughout Washington want the Legislature to fix the problem.
Unfortunately, there are signs we won’t see the kind of action that citizens are demanding. The issue of police pursuits of suspects may be going in the wrong direction this session.
Before this session began, I introduced Senate Bill 5034, which would change state law to again make it easier for law-enforcement officers to pursue suspects in vehicles. Unfortunately, Sen. Manka Dhingra, the chair of the Law and Justice Committee, did not schedule this bill for a public hearing.
The vehicle pursuit bill that Sen. Dhingra and the Democrats passed out of the Law and Justice Committee is Senate Bill 5533, which actually doesn’t take any action now to address the problem. Instead, SB 5533 would create a model vehicle pursuit work group within the state Criminal Justice Training Commission, with the work group required to report back to the Legislature by Oct. 31, 2024. In other words, the majority party is choosing to kick this issue down the road for another 18 months or more instead of tackling the problem now. SB 5533 is before the Ways and Means Committee.
It’s time for the Legislature to make crime victims a higher priority than criminals. The Legislature needs to fix the police pursuit law now.
— Sen. Mike Padden, R-Spokane Valley, is the ranking Republican on the Senate Law and justice Committee.