After the Washington House Democrats refused to vote on a proposal to relax restrictions on cops initiating car chases, in an unusual move on Wednesday the Senate took up the bill and voted to lob its version back over to the House to keep it alive for consideration.
Senators passed the bill 26 to 23, with some Republicans voting in opposition because it didn’t give cops a license to start car chases over stolen vehicles.
The House pursuit bill didn’t advance in its own chamber because, unlike in the Senate, the House Democratic caucus diverged “widely” on which crimes police could cite to justify a car chase, according to State Representative Roger Goodman (D-Kirkland).
Despite the Senate’s play, pressure from police lobbyists and local officials, and lots of media attention, Goodman thinks political dynamics in the House haven’t changed much, if at all.
Goodman, who chairs the House committee where the pursuit bill will land next, proposed a work group to study the issue “away from the politically charged legislative session,” he said Thursday.
What’s in the Bill
In an attempt to reduce the number of people killed by police pursuits, lawmakers in 2021 sought to restrict instances when cops could chase suspects in cars. The law limited chases to two broad scenarios: (1) when officers had probable cause that a person in the car committed a violent crime or a jailbreak, or (2) when officers had reasonable suspicion that a person was driving under the influence.
The law also required officers to get supervisor approval before starting a pursuit and to consider safety risks.
The bill that passed this week reduced the level of proof officers needed from probable cause to reasonable suspicion. Cops need probable cause to arrest you or to get a search warrant, but they can stop you on the street and ask you questions based on reasonable suspicion.
The bill would also add some domestic violence assaults and vehicular assault to the list of crimes for which cops are allowed to chase down suspects.
The bill changes when a cop must seek approval from a supervisor, too, allowing officers to start the chase but then seek approval from a supervisor as soon as possible. In order to chase people in cars, officers must also have additional training, consider alternatives to pursuing the suspect, and decide on a pursuit exit strategy as soon as possible.
Republican lawmakers and some conservative Democrats criticized the 2021 restrictions for leading to a rise in crime. In January, state Senator Manka Dhingra (D-Redmond) told The Stranger that no data backed up that claim. Dhingra chairs the Senate Law & Justice Committee, which reviewed the police pursuit bill but didn’t vote it out.
However, in a Thursday press conference Senate Majority Leader Andy Billig said the House’s decision to punt on the bill partly led Dhingra to feel as if the full caucus deserved to hear it. So they worked on the bill, and Senator Jamie Pedersen (D-Seattle) requested the Senate suspend some rules to bring a narrower version of it to the floor.
In an interview with The Stranger on Thursday, Dhingra said a majority of Senate Democrats wanted a vote on the narrowed-down version of the original bill, which is why she brought it to the floor despite earlier this year suggesting the bill had almost no chance of moving.
A "Misinformation Campaign"
Sen. Yasmin Trudeau (D-Tacoma) said the conversation around the vote disappointed her. While on the floor, she emphasized how risky police chases are for bystanders, including children playing on sidewalks.
“Or, like many neighborhoods in my community, they don’t have sidewalks to play on, so they literally play in the street, which puts them at disproportional danger,” Trudeau said.
Since 2013, thirty people in Washington have been killed in high-speed chases, nearly half bystanders or passengers, Dhingra said on the floor Wednesday.
In an interview with the Stranger Wednesday, Trudeau said while her Senate colleagues voted their conscience, she felt a misinformation pressure-campaign tying an increase in car thefts to the 2021 restrictions partly motivated lawmakers to call for a floor vote.
During debate on the bill, Dhingra pointed out that states such as Oregon and California, where pursuit restrictions did not change, have also reported increases in car thefts. Car thefts also started trending up in Washington in 2020–a year before lawmakers passed new restrictions. Car theft increases are associated with a rise in used car prices, Dhingra said.
However, Trudeau said sometimes in politics you have to listen to the loudest people in the room. After the House did not bring the police pursuit bill to the floor, supporters of the bill showed up in Olympia to show their support.
But people whose voices haven’t been historically uplifted also vote and care about these issues, she added.
“Part of the job of someone like me is to remember those in our community, too. They don’t have the opportunity to come to Olympia and have some sort of bully pulpit,” she said.