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Washington police grapple with effects of restrictive vehicle pursuit law

State Patrol reports nearly a thousand drivers ignored troopers’ lights and sirens during the first five months of this year.

Published: June 1, 2022 6:36pm

Updated: June 1, 2022 11:39pm

(The Center Square) -

A law passed last year in Washington state restricting vehicle pursuits appears to be having an unintended side effect: drivers refusing to stop when police attempt to pull them over.

The Washington State Patrol reports nearly a thousand drivers essentially ignored troopers’ lights and sirens during the first five months of this year.

Between January 1 and May 17, 934 people on the state’s highways kept going when troopers tried to pull them over for a traffic stop.

In 2021, the state Legislature passed House Bill 1054 that, among other things, limits police to engaging in a pursuit if there is “probable cause” to arrest a person in the vehicle for committing a specific violent crime or sex offense such as murder, kidnapping, drive-by shooting, and rape.

Sgt. Darren Wright, WSP spokesman, had no comment on the Legislature’s passage of HB 1054 or what troopers thought of the law.

“The agency will continue to comply with the law,” he said.

Others spoke out against what they perceive as a law that handcuffs law enforcement officers’ ability to do their jobs.

“This shouldn’t be a surprise to anybody,” Spokane County Undersheriff John Nowels said of drivers refusing to pull over for police in the aftermath of HB 1054, which he characterized as a “one-size-fits-all” approach.

He continued, “It’s out, and people are taking advantage.”

It's a view shared by the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs, which put out a statement in April pinning a stark rise in vehicle thefts across the state on HB 1054.

In the statement, WASPC says vehicle thefts have increased 93% since HB 1054 and other police reform laws went into effect at the end of July 2021.

“The data show what our law enforcement and communities are seeing out there every day – the word is out and criminals know what they can do under our current laws,” WASPC Executive Director Steve Strachan said in the statement.

Strachan went on to say, “I have never seen criminals as emboldened as they are now. Our mayors, law enforcement, and the community asked for help, and the Legislature made the specific decision to continue to allow for brazen contempt for the law. No one wants more pursuits, which are inherently dangerous, but current law has created an atmosphere of flouting the law even on simple traffic stops. This is one example of a change in atmosphere that is, and will continue to be, unacceptable and dangerous to public safety. Fleeing in a vehicle should not be a get-out-of-jail-free card.”

Legislation that would have eased restrictions on police pursuits failed to pass during this year’s legislative session.

House Bill 1788, which was amended to allow police pursuits in the event of a violent offense, an escape, or DUI, failed to make it to a floor vote.

Senate Bill 5919 would have reduced the standard for a police pursuit down from “probable cause” to “reasonable suspicion,” but ultimately failed to garner enough support for a full vote before the end of the 2022 legislative session.

Others have applauded the law restricting police chases to only the most serious offenses.

Outgoing state Sen. Rep. Jesse Johnson, D-Federal Way, the prime sponsor of HB 1054, is opposed to lowering the threshold for pursuits.

“I just do not believe pursuits in a 21st century policing system are needed,” he said in a March interview on TVW’s “Inside Olympia.”

An analysis by Dr. Martina Morris, a retired professor of statistics and sociology at the University of Washington who provided data for HB 1054, found 30 people died in pursuits in Washington between 2015 and 2021, nearly half of them bystanders or passengers in the fleeing vehicle.

Earlier this year, testifying against HB 1788 before the House Public Safety Committee, Morris noted “two-thirds of fatal high-speed chases result in the death or injury of a passenger or bystander, and half of deaths from these incidents are bystanders or passengers. Following last year’s reforms, we saw a 55% decline in deaths from high-speed pursuits in Washington state.”

Nowels suggested next year that lawmakers craft a legislative solution that achieves a happy medium between police pursuing dangerous criminals and ensuring public safety in doing so.

“Criminal justice is all about that balance,” he said.