After months of heated debate, the Washington state House of Representatives passed a bill on April 10 that would rollback some restrictions on vehicular police pursuits, clearing its way for the governor’s desk.
The legislation, Senate Bill (SB) 5352, would allow police officers to engage in a pursuit if they have a “reasonable suspicion” that a person had committed a violent offense, was driving under the influence or posed a serious risk to the safety of others. This is a significant watering down of the 2021 law that required that a law enforcement officer possess a higher evidentiary standard of “probable cause” before deploying the tactic. The law would also relax the requirement for officers to get approval from their supervisors before starting a chase, instead only requiring the officers to inform them.
SB 5352 comes after more than a year of lobbying by pro-police groups that argued that the pursuit restrictions may have contributed to a host of issues including a recent uptick in car thefts, an increase in collisions and more crime. Police accountability advocates pushed back on these claims, arguing that the law didn’t contribute to these trends and that preliminary data suggested fewer deadlier pursuit-related incidents occurred as a result of the 2021 rule change.
In an email, Washington Coalition for Police Accountability member Leslie Cushman expressed opposition to SB 5352, writing that the group hasn’t “seen any data that shows us how the changes will keep people safe.”
Cushman added that many of the legislators backing the rollback had deployed the same “tough-on-crime” rhetoric that has harmed communities.
“The underlying reason to put RCW 10.116.060 was a recognition that deaths from pursuits were significant, and that is because it is a dangerous tactic,” Cushman said. “The debate that we heard early this morning on the floor of the House was heavy with fear and tough-on-crime rhetoric, which isn't exactly a proving ground for policies that protect the community.”
The bill didn’t seem likely to pass for much of the legislative session. It languished in the Law and Justice committee after the chair, state Sen. Manka Dhingra (D-Redmond), refused to give the bill a hearing, citing the lack of evidence supporting the legislation. In the final hours before the March 8 deadline, the Senate suspended the rules, bringing the bill to a floor vote where it passed 26 to 23. The House passed it with a margin of 57 to 40.
The issue did not fall neatly along partisan lines, with some more conservative Democrats coming out in support of the legislation. Some Republicans, who were upset with compromise amendments that watered down aspects of the legislation, voted against the final bill. For example, police officers would still not be allowed to engage in a pursuit solely for the purposes of addressing a property crime, an issue that many police lobbyists had campaigned on.
“We settled for scraps,” wrote Republican state Rep. Michelle Caldier in a press release. Caldier and her fellow Gig Harbor Republican, Rep. Spencer Hutchins, both voted against the final passage of SB 5352.
Gov. Jay Inslee will now decide whether to veto the bill or sign it into law.
Guy Oron is the staff reporter for Real Change. Find them on Twitter, @GuyOron.
Read more of the Apr. 19-25, 2023 issue.