by Lauryn Bray
In 2021, the Washington State Legislature passed HB 1054, a bill aimed at reducing the number of fatalities from vehicular pursuits by stating guidelines for which criminal offenses warrant police pursuit. Since its implementation, data shows that fatalities from vehicular pursuits have lowered significantly. However, a recent bill in the Senate, SB 5352, may roll back some of these guidelines and make it easier for officers to initiate a vehicular pursuit.
In a 26-23 vote in favor, the Washington State Senate passed SB 5352 on Feb. 23, which, if signed into law, could loosen guidelines for police officers to pursue people in vehicles. Under SB 5352, police would not need definitive proof that a driver is doing something nefarious before conducting a vehicular pursuit. An officer would be within their rights to pursue a vehicle as long as they have “reasonable suspicion” that the person in the vehicle is committing an offense that warrants the pursuit. SB 5352 states that “reasonable suspicion” can include the belief that a person in the vehicle has committed or is committing a violent offense, a sex offense, or a vehicular assault offense; assault in the first, second, third, or fourth degree only if the assault involves domestic violence; an escape; or a driving while under the influence offense.
The current law (HB 1054) states that police officers are not allowed to engage in a vehicular pursuit unless there is probable cause to believe a person in the vehicle has committed or is committing a violent offense or sex offense, or is under reasonable suspicion of driving under the influence. With the new bill, the “reasonable suspicion” clause that applies to driving under the influence will be expanded to replace “probable cause.” Also, SB 5352 would add more crimes that warrant a vehicular pursuit.
“In the State of Washington currently, officers cannot engage in pursuing a person unless they have probable cause, which is a higher level of requirement than has historically been true,” said Teresa Taylor, executive director of the Washington Council of Police and Sheriffs.
Police street stops, on the other hand, allow for “reasonable suspicion,” Taylor says. “When interacting with somebody on the street, police only need reasonable suspicion, and it’s important that they only need reasonable suspicion, because that’s the beginning of the investigation,” explained Taylor. “In Washington, we have said in the event that someone is able to get into a vehicle and move away from wherever the scene of the alleged illegal activity took place, now an officer can’t begin their investigation. They have to have been able to move far enough through the investigation that they now have probable cause before they can stop that member of the public.”
With the change in policy, not only would the burden of proof be lowered, but SB 5352 would also ease restrictions around which offenses warrant a vehicular pursuit.
“[HB 1054] restricted the types of crimes for which pursuits could be initiated. It was a restriction essentially to violent crimes and criminal escapes — people who were escaping from custody so you already knew that they had been found guilty,” said Martina Morris, sociologist and retired University of Washington professor of statistics. “That’s another thing we need to understand about pursuits — people aren’t necessarily guilty when you’re pursuing them. There’s been no process to adjudicate their innocence or guilt.”
Merriam-Webster defines the word “suspicion” as “the act of or an instance of suspecting something wrong without proof or on slight evidence.” This means that under SB 5352, in the event a person in a vehicle is found to have not been doing anything illegal, the police officer cannot be reprimanded as long as they had reason to suspect the person was committing an offense that warrants a vehicular pursuit.
The loosened guidelines for police officers’ vehicular pursuits (aka “car chases” or “police chases”) may impact criminal activity in several ways. According to data from Morris, chases can put people on the road in danger. Vehicular pursuits are involved in 23% of the incidents in which someone is killed by police. The person being pursued may defy traffic laws to evade police, and police could follow suit to catch up to the vehicle, affecting other motorists, pedestrians, road workers, and cyclists.
In 2019, a 41-year-old Tacoma woman named Kimberly Winslow was killed after crashing into a tree while being chased by police. Winslow had a 9-year-old boy in the car with her who sustained minor injuries. According to the Federal Way Mirror, Winslow was pursued after police spotted her vehicle traveling over 70 mph in a 35 mph zone.
According to its proponents, SB 5352 is intended to promote public safety and will reduce the number of people killed during vehicular pursuits by stating that police can not pursue a person for doing anything that does not pose an immediate or impending risk to public safety, like speeding.
“Many of the folks — for example, in the city of Tacoma — were writing to me saying, ‘Let law enforcement do their job. You’re keeping them from doing their job’ — the whole narrative,” said State Sen. Yasmin Trudeau. “I had to gently remind them that the city of Tacoma has had a restrictive pursuit policy mirroring State law before State law ever changed.”
According to Sen. Trudeau, SB 5352 would not restrict the power of law enforcement. With the burden of proof lowered and the list of offenses that justify a vehicle pursuit lengthened, law enforcement would have more room to conduct a pursuit. However, representatives say officers may still have some hoops left to jump through before they can initiate a pursuit.
To pursue a person in a vehicle, police will need to obtain permission from a supervisor. Once permission is obtained, the officer may then pursue the vehicle. But throughout this process, the officer will not be forced to produce any proof of the person committing a crime before receiving authorization to pursue the vehicle.
“While we definitely want to catch these types of crimes,” said State Rep. Chipalo Street, “we have to realize the threat that a chase poses not only to the officer, [but also] to the person being chased, to pedestrians, and to other people who may be unrelated to that offense that are also in the car being chased.”
Before Washington State passed HB 1054 in 2021, from 2015 to 2021, 10% to 20% of fatalities from police activities were caused by vehicular pursuits, according to data and analyses from Morris. Because her data is continuously updated, the percentages will change as the number of fatalities do. According to her data, since the law changed in 2021 with the passage of HB 1054, the number of people killed during vehicular pursuits has dropped by 75%. Two months ago, the number was just 67%.
Street added, “I believe that we should keep things the way they are right now, where if you are going to be chasing someone, you have to have a very good reason for doing it, and you have to have oversight to basically reduce the chances [of causing] collateral damage to pedestrians or [anyone else].”
Lauryn Bray is a writer and reporter for the South Seattle Emerald. She has a degree in English with a concentration in creative writing from CUNY Hunter College. She is from Sacramento, California, and has been living in King County since June 2022.
📸 Featured image by Aleksandr_Kuzmin/Shutterstock.com.
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