Washington lawmakers loosen restrictions on police chases

The House and Senate agreed that pursuit is allowable when there's reasonable suspicion a violent offense has occurred, or could.

Police and social worker in Downtown Seattle

Ze Andrignis, at right, a social worker from the Downtown Emergency Service Center (DESC) who contracts with the Seattle Police Department (SPD) to help with crisis response, works with SPD Crisis Response Team officer Sandlin Grayson in downtown Seattle, August 6, 2020. (Matt M. McKnight/Crosscut)

The Washington Legislature has passed a bill to ease some restrictions on law enforcement vehicle pursuits that were put in place in 2021. Those restrictions were part of a package of policing reforms approved after the deaths of people of color that year at the hands of police, including Manuel Ellis in Tacoma and George Floyd in Minneapolis.

This year, law enforcement groups, conservatives and some Democrats – who hold majorities in the Legislature – have pressed to return some latitude to officers trying to pursue fleeing individuals.

In response, House and Senate lawmakers have passed Senate Bill 5352. Sponsored by Sen. John Lovick, D-Mill Creek, the bill lowers the pursuit threshold in certain situations.

Among other things, the legislation that ultimately passed allows an officer to pursue a person if there’s reasonable suspicion they are committing – or have committed – a violent offense. Those would include a sex offense, vehicular assault or domestic violence assault, or driving under the influence, according to a legislative analysis.

“The fleeing person must pose a serious risk of harm to others, and the risk of failing to apprehend or identify the person must be considered to be greater than the safety risks of the vehicular pursuit under the circumstances,” according to the analysis.

The Washington Fraternal Order of Police – one of several law enforcement unions in the state – put out a statement supporting the bill, which changes the standard in determining whether a pursuit is justified from “‘probable cause’ to ‘reasonable suspicion,’” according to a statement.

That and other parts of the bill “are important changes that provide greater certainty and will provide peace officers with the ability to use the law, their training, experience and judgment in making decisions regarding police pursuits,” said FOP President Marco Monteblanco.

Throughout the session, Republicans have prodded Democratic leaders to take action, and the final House and Senate votes resulted in a mix of Democratic and GOP support.

Some Republicans have said the bill doesn’t go far enough, including Republican Senate Minority Leader John Braun, R-Centralia, who voted against it.

“As I’ve said before, SB 5352 is only a half-step in the right direction,” Braun said in a statement. “And, while I appreciate that the majority allowed a pursuit-reform bill to pass the Legislature, I am disappointed that certain legislators, through their own hubris, posed such an enormous barrier to improving public safety.”

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