Editor's note: Due to broad public interest in this subject, this story has been made available outside the newspaper's paywall as a public service by Cascadia Daily News.
Two bills sponsored by state lawmakers from Whatcom County offer contrasting solutions to perceived problems with a law that limits police pursuits.
While a bill co-sponsored by Democratic Sen. Sharon Shewmake of Bellingham would set up a commission to study the issue, Rep. Alicia Rule, a Democrat from Blaine, seeks a more immediate approach.
Rule’s House Bill 1363, which would take effect this year, allows police to initiate a pursuit with less evidence of a crime, lowering the bar from “probable cause” to “reasonable suspicion.” The bill also removes a restriction established by HB 1054 in 2021: Police would be able to pursue drivers suspected of any crime, not just violent offenses or DUIs.
“The 2021 law to limit when police can pursue suspects went too far and needs to be corrected,” Rule wrote in a Jan. 27 opinion in Cascadia Daily News.
Some officials say criminals have taken advantage of the 2021 reforms.
Sixty-two percent of members surveyed by the Association of Washington Cities said they have seen “an uptick in individuals fleeing from police,” Candice Bock, AWC government relations director, said Jan. 30 during a Senate committee hearing on Shewmake’s bill.
Law enforcement officials across the state also claim crime has spiked as a result of the stricter pursuit law. Auto thefts in Bellingham increased from 150 in the first seven months of 2021 — mostly before the pursuit restrictions went into effect on July 25 of that year — to 346 during the same period in 2022.
But critics of Rule’s approach, including Andrew Reding, chair of Whatcom Democrats, say crime is up nationwide, and auto thefts in particular are better correlated with the rising value of used cars during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Reding and other critics of Rule’s bill also point to a small sample of data suggesting the 2021 pursuit reform law saved lives. Three people died due to police pursuits since the 2021 law passed, compared to 11 during the same period before the restrictions went into effect.
Rule has criticized that data as insignificant, citing an independent review by a Seattle University criminal justice expert who concluded it should be disregarded as a basis for informed lawmaking.
The three deaths since July 25, 2021 do not include the fatal shooting of David Babcock by Sedro-Woolley police on Feb. 16, 2022 because that encounter was not classified as a pursuit.
Reding and key Democrats in the Legislature prefer Senate Bill 5533, co-sponsored by Sen. Shewmake. Her bill calls for the state’s law enforcement training agency to come up with model vehicle pursuit policy by October 2024. SB 5533 got a hearing in the Senate Law & Justice Committee on Jan. 30. Committee Chair Manka Dhingra refused to bring the Senate version of Rule’s House bill to a hearing.
Rule’s bill will get a hearing in the House, however. HB 1363 comes before the Community Safety, Justice & Reentry Committee at 4 p.m. on Tuesday, Jan. 31.