Expanded police pursuit authority may come up for initiative vote - Salish Current
January 26, 2024
Expanded police pursuit authority may come up for initiative vote
Matt Benoit

Voters may have a chance to lift some of the restrictions on police pursuit of suspects’ vehicles enacted by the 2021 Legislature, depending on legislative action this year around a proposed initiative; San Juan, Whatcom and Bellingham law enforcement leaders weigh in on balancing safety and justice. Narrow roads and plentiful free-roaming deer help escalate the danger of high-speed police pursuit in San Juan County, where such pursuit has been infrequent. (Salish Current photo)

January 26, 2024
Expanded police pursuit authority may come up for initiative vote
Matt Benoit


Imagine arriving home to see a group of people loading some of your possessions into a car. You yell at them to stop, but they drive off with your stuff.  

You call 911, giving the dispatcher a vehicle description and even a license plate number, and police are quickly dispatched. They see the vehicle and attempt to pull it over with lights and sirens, but the vehicle does not slow down.

Abiding by current Washington state law, the police do not pursue any further.

Whatcom County Sheriff Donnell “Tank” Tanksley (Whatcom County photo)

This scenario — as explained by Whatcom County Sheriff Donnell Tanksley — is an example of the predicament state law enforcement agencies have found themselves in since the state legislature passed House Bill 1054 in 2021. 

The bill provides a series of rules aimed at police accountability, including language that greatly narrows the criteria for which police can initiate a vehicle pursuit. The bill’s pursuit provision was aimed at decreasing the dangers faced by officers, suspects and bystanders in police pursuits, which often manifest in stories like that of Bob Bray, a 64-year-old man killed in September 2022 by a reckless motorcyclist attempting to flee police in Skagit County. 

data study from Martina Morris, a sociologist and former University of Washington statistics professor, shows that 10% to 20% of statewide deaths from police activities between 2015 and 2021 were from pursuits. Half of those, Morris’ study said, were officers, vehicle passengers or bystanders.

Pushback from law enforcement was swift due to the nature of the law’s restriction, leading to the passage of Senate Bill 5352 last year. 

That bill lowered the threshold for pursuit from “probable cause” to “reasonable suspicion,” but many criticized the legislation for continuing to restrict pursuits to only the most serious crimes. These include violent offenses, sex offenses, vehicular assault, domestic violence, escaping custody or driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol. 

By the end of last year, the number of people killed by police pursuits had dropped 50%, Morris’ study concluded.

This November, Washington voters may have their say on the matter if Initiative 2113 finds its way onto ballots. Filed last May by Rep. Jim Walsh (R-Aberdeen) and supported by the Washington Council of Police and Sheriffs, the initiative would broadly widen police authority for engaging in pursuits, allowing them to once again pursue suspects in offenses such as theft, burglary and other nonviolent crime. 

The initiative — along with five others likely to wind up on the November ballot — is sponsored by Let’s Go Washington, which has contributed more than $6 million, most of it from Redmond hedge fund manager and Republican party activist Brian Heywood, to support its cause.  

A needed revision?

The current consensus of law enforcement agencies across the state, Tanksley said, is that existing law is still too limiting to successfully pursue and apprehend many suspects. 

“The community has a social contract with law enforcement,” he said, “that law enforcement will uphold the law, that we’ll be righteous in the enforcement of the law, and that we follow the law as well. I’m not sure if (the current RCW) completely meets the social contract of the community.”

While Tanksley said he understands the intent of the current law, and agrees that safety is paramount, the result of the change is an environment where people are aware police cannot and will not pursue them for certain crimes. As a result, some have become emboldened. 

“The number of stolen vehicles since the changes in the pursuit laws is off the chart,” Tanksley said. “I know they’re property crimes, but without a doubt, there’s a victim, there’s a face, there’s a family behind every single crime.”

According to state crime statistics from the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs (WASPC), more than 47,000 vehicles were stolen in 2022. That’s about 12,000 more than in 2021, and about 20,000 more than in 2020. 

According to National Insurance Crime Bureau statistics, these increases put Washington third among motor vehicle thefts nationwide, trailing only Texas and California. And while it’s hard to say how much changes in pursuit law are driving those increases, Bellingham has also seen a significant increase in auto theft during that time. 

Bellingham Police Department data show that vehicle thefts increased 74% between 2021 and 2022. When comparing the period of January to July 2021 (the seven months before HB1054 took effect) with that same timeframe in 2022, vehicle thefts more than doubled. 

The number of pursuits the Whatcom County Sheriff’s Office has recently conducted is, comparatively, a much smaller number. There were 10 total pursuits in 2022, and 12 through the first three quarters of 2023. 

Ten of the 2023 pursuits were undertaken because someone appeared to be intoxicated and presented a threat to others, while the other two involved suspects thought to have committed violent or sexual offenses. According to WCSO accountability data, three pursuits resulted in a suspect crashing, while two chases were aborted. One suspect eluded police, while several more ended the pursuit by stopping. 

Rare in the islands

In the San Juan Islands, police pursuits are even rarer.  

San Juan County Sheriff Eric Peter (San Juan County photo)

“We don’t get a lot of them,” said San Juan County Sheriff Eric Peter. “I’m very happy about that.”

Peter — a former Houston police officer who is also a state-certified patrol pursuit instructor — said that his county recorded no pursuits in 2023. There were only a couple the year before that, he added. 

Being on an island with a limited number of people means most people who commit crimes there already know it’s a matter of time before they’re found, Peter said. Adding to that deterrent is the fact that a high-speed pursuit in the San Juans is very dangerous.

“A lot of these roads, they’re very narrow, they’re very slick,” Peter said. “We have these deer that seem to just like to walk out in front of traffic all the time. The risk of accidents on the roads in the islands is definitely a lot of higher. It’s not a safe environment to have a chase.”

Peter sees Initiative 2113’s changes as a means of providing law enforcement with the discretion they need to act most effectively to curtail crime and apprehend suspects.

“If there’s not a deterrent for committing crimes, and they know that no one’s going to chase them, it’s going to keep happening,” he said.

Another deterrent may be Senate Bill 6200, which adds eluding police to a series of existing RCWs involving the impoundment of vehicles used in crimes, including police taking custody and instructing removal of vehicles. It’s unclear whether the bill will reach a vote in the 2024 session. 

Common sense

Bellingham Police Chief Rebecca Mertzig (City of Bellingham photo)

Bellingham Police Chief Rebecca Mertzig told Salish Current in an email that she also thinks HB1054 severely limited the department’s ability to pursue fleeing suspects in recent years. While SB5352 is an improvement, she said, it did not go far enough. 

As a member of the WASPC, Mertzig said she has always advocated for common sense “balancing tests” that officers and supervisors must use to conclude that the risk of not arresting a suspect outweighs the risk of the pursuit. 

Three components in pursuit decisions, she added, can best protect community members from harm: strong and frequent training, clear policy and supervision. 

“I trust my field supervisors to make these decisions when they have all of the facts in front of them,” Mertzig said. “I would expect a supervisor to assess things like time of day, road conditions, number of occupants in the vehicle, traffic conditions, vehicle speed and more before making the decision to pursue.”

As an example, Mertzig said, if a vehicle pursuit occurred in rush hour traffic and the fleeing suspect was heading downtown, a supervisor wouldn’t allow such a chase to continue. If that same suspect was fleeing at 2 a.m. in a commercial area, the decision might be different. 

As written, Initiative 2113 would create very broad terminology for the existing law, allowing pursuit simply if someone has “violated the law.”

While that generality might worry some, Tanksley said that many law enforcement agencies have police pursuit documents that are already longer and more detailed than the current state RCW. The Whatcom County Sheriff’s Office pursuit policy document, he noted, is nearly 13 pages long, compared to the nearly two pages of RCW 10.116.060.

Peter also stresses the importance of increased training opportunities and proper supervision, which relate to his own experience as a pursuit instructor. Many agencies now have policies limiting pursuits to just one or two units, Peter said — a far cry from chases from earlier in his policing career, where 10 to 20 patrol units pursued a suspect and both officers and civilians were sometimes injured. 

And when things do go wrong, Peter said, the days of irresponsible conduct being overlooked are long gone: severe consequences can, and should, he said, be dished out when police make mistakes while pursuing suspects. 

“I don’t think it should be the Wild West,” he said. “We have to make sure that we are balancing the ultimate goal of preserving life while we’re deciding to continue a pursuit or not.” 

Tanksley agrees, and said that a landscape in which safety and justice are properly balanced is one likely to produce the greatest number of desired outcomes. 

“We want people to know that our communities are safe,” he said. “But we also want them to know that when something happens — if their car is stolen or their house is burglarized — that we can go out and hold people accountable.”

At publication deadline, Rep. Alicia Rule (D-42nd) was not available, and Rep. Alex Ramel (D-40th) had not responded to a request for comment.

— Reported by Matt Benoit

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