Preliminary data indicates that vehicular deaths caused by police pursuits in Washington state declined by more than 80 percent since a 2021 state law was enacted that restricted when officers could chase suspects in their vehicles.
As of Nov. 3, two people have been killed in police pursuits since HB 1054 came into effect, compared to 11 in a similar 15-month period prior.
The figures, compiled by retired University of Washington sociology and statistics professor Martina Morris, come from the journalist-led Fatal Encounters Project and Washington Post Police Shootings Database. Morris, who is a member of the police accountability group Next Steps Washington, said that vehicle collisions have historically accounted for about 1 in 10 police killings in the state.
The 2021 law overhauled a number of police practices, such as banning chokeholds, restricting the use of tear gas, prohibiting police departments from acquiring military equipment and limiting vehicular pursuits to serious crimes. Pursuits remain legal in cases where a person poses an imminent threat to the safety of others, there is reasonable suspicion that the driver is under the influence or if there is probable cause that a person has or is currently committing a violent crime. The law also mandates that a police officer consults with their supervisor before initiating a high-speed chase.
Leslie Cushman, a member of the Washington Coalition for Police Accountability, said that the vehicular pursuit clauses in HB 1054 were modeled after best practices that were already being used by law enforcement in King County and the city of Seattle. The coalition was instrumental in getting a raft of police accountability legislation passed during the 2021 legislative session in the wake of the 2020 George Floyd protests.
“For vehicular pursuits, what we did was try to educate the legislature on the fact that they were inherently dangerous,” Cushman said. “We consider them to be similar to a use of deadly force. So we wanted to really limit how they were used and only authorize their use for violent crimes and not just for chasing after somebody who didn’t use their signal right.”
In Washington, people who have been killed during high-speed police pursuits include the driver, passengers, bystanders and even other law enforcement officers. Between 2016 and 2022, 29 people across the state were killed by vehicles involved in police pursuits. According to a 2017 Bureau of Justice Statistics study, a national average of 355 people were killed every year between 1996 and 2015 due to pursuit-related crashes.
These pursuit statistics likely undercount police killings because they don’t include other deaths, such as shootings, that happen in the immediate aftermath of a chase. The state also holds the driver who is chased entirely responsible for any vehicular collisions.
Morris said that the law is working as intended by barring the use of pursuits such as with low-risk property crimes and reducing the amount of police pursuits overall.
“There are far fewer pursuits now because they’re simply not authorized,” Morris said. “And again, the pursuits that are not authorized are the low-risk subjects, right? It’s people who are stealing cars, or people who were stealing merchandise or who went through a stoplight or something.”
Despite what appears to be strong evidence for success, cops have had mixed responses to the law, with some calling for the restrictions imposed by HB 1054 to be reformed or altogether scrapped.
In an email to Real Change, Washington State Patrol Troopers Association president Spike Unruh suggested increases in crime-related incidents, DUIs and collisions could be linked to the adoption of HB 1054.
“Also ask yourself, have you seen a change in driving behavior, have speeds increased, have you seen an increase in reckless or aggressive driving on our roadways,” he wrote.
While pursuit-related collisions are clearly correlated with the number of risky, high-speed chases law enforcement engage in, it is less clear that a plethora of different crimes and driving behaviors can be associated with a single law change.
In April, Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs President Steve Strachan released a statement saying that vehicle thefts have increased by 88 percent since 2021. Strachan directly blamed HB 1054 for this uptick. He wrote that “the failure of the legislature to give law enforcement the authority to allow even the perceived possibility of a pursuit has created an environment that is a significant cause of the increase.”
Former King County Sheriff John Urquhart hit back at these claims in an August Seattle Times op-ed, claiming that protecting property is not worth increased deaths and injuries.
“We need cooler heads to prevail and take the time to value human life over property crimes,” Urquhart wrote.
According to James Schrimpsher, the city of Algona’s police chief and vice president of the Washington Fraternal Order of Police, revisiting HB 1054 was not a high priority for the 2023 legislative session. His organization, which has the motto “cops helping cops,” will instead advocate for drug law reform, officer retention and recruitment support and the development of an independent statewide office to investigate instances of police use of deadly force.
Cushman said that despite the attacks on these reforms by some police officers, she is confident that the state legislature will maintain the reforms passed in HB 1054. She hopes to counter some of the fearmongering narratives around police accountability legislation with data.
“We all want to feel safe in our communities and it’s easy to begin to wonder about safety when you’re fed misinformation or disinformation,” Cushman said.
Guy Oron is the staff reporter for Real Change. Find them on Twitter, @GuyOron.
Read more of the Nov. 23-29, 2022 issue.