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Fatal accident illustrates stakes in police-pursuit law reform

A 'preventable' tragedy cries out for action

By Simon Sefzik, Guest Writer

Earlier this March, two children were killed when the car they were riding in was hit head-on by a driver going the wrong way on Interstate 82 in Eastern Washington. One of the victims was an 8-year-old girl named Delilah. The other was a 6-year-old boy named Timothy. 

According to KAPP KVEW’s Yak-Tri News, “State Trooper Chris Thorson said an hour before the crash, Washington State Patrol troopers in Ellensburg attempted a traffic stop on that same vehicle for going 111 miles per hour on I-90.”

Our state’s police pursuit laws prevented the troopers from continuing the pursuit.  

“Under current laws that the legislature passed, police officers are not allowed to pursue vehicles unless it’s something felonious in nature or suspected DUI. In this scenario, it was someone speeding really fast and that’s all the troopers had for probable cause at the time. So they had to follow the current law and terminate the pursuit,” Trooper Thorson told KAPP KVEW.

Recent reports reveal the driver of the speeding vehicle was in fact under the influence of intoxicants, which was a factor in the crash. But it was too late. Under current state law, because of the governor and the Democratic majority’s reforms, police have been handcuffed in their ability to pursue suspected criminals. 

The state Legislature is currently deciding whether it will return vehicular pursuit policy back to the “reasonable suspicion” standard for criminal offenses after bipartisan legislation has been sponsored in both chambers. Some Democrats in the House and Senate are fighting tooth and nail to prevent this from happening. Others are trying to significantly gut the bill. 

This tragic story is one piece of a much larger puzzle of tragedy, devastation and danger Washington residents have experienced because of this detrimental reform. 

When I first read this story, I was heartbroken by the injustice of it all — the robbing of two innocent lives cut tragically short by the recklessness of someone else, and the lives of the driver and surviving child permanently altered by the trauma of the accident. Right now, a mother grieves with a pain deeper than the ocean’s floor. With the loss of these two little ones, this world has lost a part of itself, and a part of its future. Meanwhile, the survivors face a difficult and perhaps only partial recovery from their wounds.

Shortly, my heartbreak turned to anger. This tragedy was preventable. For years now, victims, law enforcement experts and local elected leaders in both parties have warned that if these laws passed, lives will be lost and criminals will be emboldened. And yet, it feels like no amount of evidence, no amount of riveting testimony, no amount of data seems to matter to some members of our Legislature. Mothers bury the innocent and are forced to wonder: is anyone even listening? 

We’ve all been told that votes in the legislature and elections have consequences. In this case, those consequences were lethal. To the governor and those legislators who supported the current restrictions on police pursuit, what would you say to this grieving mother? How do you justify passing policies preventing police from protecting these, and other, innocent children? 

Nothing will bring back the lost. We can honor their lives, and the lives they would have lived, by taking action. In the Legislature, I hope the governor and Democrat leaders think of Timothy and Delilah when it comes to changing this law. And I hope you think of them the next time you fill out your ballot. I know I will. 

Simon Sefzik is a former Washington State senator from the 42nd Legislative District. He is currently working for Project 42, a 501c4 nonprofit organization aiming to build a durable infrastructure to improve the course of Washington.

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