Janice Porcher was on a routine work errand one morning in 2017 in Fife. A nine-year veteran deck hand for Washington State Ferries, she was a favorite of her colleagues for her smile and her kind demeanor. Just after turning left at a green light, her car was suddenly smashed by a driver who ran a red light at 70 miles an hour in a stolen car while fleeing a high-speed police chase, killing Porcher instantly. She was only 53.
Since 2015, 30 people in Washington have been killed in high-speed chases, nearly half of them passengers or innocent bystanders, according to analysis by University of Washington emerita professor Martina Morris. National numbers are less up-to-date, but between 1980 and 2015, 11,500 people were killed in police pursuits, more than 5,000 of them passengers and bystanders. “Police chases kill more people each year,” a Washington Post writer observed at the time, “than floods, tornadoes, hurricanes and lightning — combined.”
Put simply, high-speed chases are a danger to public safety. So it’s common sense that pursuits should be avoided unless the risk to innocent lives is worth it.
That’s why, in 2021, the Legislature passed HB 1054, which codified into state law a reasonable standard that many departments around our state and our country were already beginning to adopt: To pursue a fleeing vehicle, police must have probable cause to believe a person in it has committed a violent crime or sex offense, or have reasonable suspicion the driver is under the influence of drugs or alcohol.
This restricts police pursuits to situations when either the crime is serious, or the driver already poses a significant risk to others on the road.
As James Schrimpsher, the police chief in Algona and vice president of the Washington Fraternal Order of Police, put it after the law went into effect last year: “I don’t want one of my officers to have to be responsible for chasing a car that blew through an intersection and hit and killed a family over a shoplift.”
A shoplifting charge, an attempted theft of a catalytic converter, even a stolen car — are any of these worth the life of an innocent bystander, especially when an adrenaline-fueled high-speed chase is not the only way to solve crimes?
In conversations with law enforcement officials in recent months, I have heard several stories about suspects with potentially stolen catalytic converters who sped off when approached by police. In the past, these encounters might have led to dangerous high-speed chases. This year, thanks to good old-fashioned investigative work — including license-plate tracking, car registration and security cameras — the perpetrators were later arrested without any bystanders being harmed or endangered.
Policing is difficult work, but here in Washington we are fortunate to have many excellent law enforcement departments that are up to the job of keeping our communities safe.
That’s why the Legislature this year took bipartisan steps to support that kind of police work. We invested in our nation-leading Criminal Justice Training Commission, clarified areas where last year’s landmark laws were ambiguous and passed HB 1815. Among other steps to develop a comprehensive strategy targeting metal theft, that bill requires metal purchasers to confirm that someone trying to sell a catalytic converter owns it legitimately and ensures our Attorney General can crack down on illegal online sales. By cutting down on demand, we can decrease theft without chases that can prove fatal.
As Sue Rahr, the former executive director of the Criminal Justice Training Committee, has often said, the role of police is not to be warriors in our streets, it’s to be guardians of our communities. Keeping the public safe means making policy choices that protect the lives of Washingtonians. And in this case the evidence is clear: high-speed chases over property crimes are just not worth risking the lives of innocent bystanders.