Police chases. We’ve all seen them on television and in the movies. There is no denying how heart-pounding, adrenaline-pumping and thrilling a good chase can be! 

But all police chases have one thing in common: It’s like playing Russian roulette with a 4,000-pound bullet fired down the street. Every chase can end in disaster, whether it is an innocent bystander killed, or a police officer, or the suspect. We don’t take those risks in other aspects of police work. Why do it with high-speed chases?

There’s no denying that we are witnessing an unprecedented moment of change in the policing professions, as well as predictable resistance. Change is hard, especially when you haven’t volunteered for it. Some of the reforms adopted by the Washington Legislature in 2021, like the new certification standards to work as a police officer, set nationwide precedent. Yet others, such as restrictions on vehicular pursuits, reflect long-standing public safety best practices.

I spent my career at the King County Sheriff’s Office, including five years as the electedsheriff. For more than 25 years, we had one of the best pursuit policies in the nation, including, among other things, requiring supervisors to monitor the pursuit and call it off if it became “too dangerous.”

But the policy lacked a standard for which crimes would not allow the police to pursue a suspect. For example, a homicide suspect could be chased, but so could a shoplifter. Is it really worth someone getting killed — anyone — over property?

And that is exactly what happened in 2016. A King County sheriff’s deputy pursued a shoplifter who stole less than $1,000 worth of merchandise from a big-box store in South King County. The pursuit went on for several minutes, sometimes at speeds of 90 mph. Finally, the suspect’s car crossed the centerline and collided with an oncoming pickup. The suspect driver died at the scene. Her passenger was severely injured. A passenger in the truck suffered a broken leg and the driver was injured … both likely saved by their larger vehicle.

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Were the death and injuries worth it? Absolutely not. But the pursuit was “within policy.” Within days, I changed the policy to prohibit pursuits where the underlying crime was a property crime and certain other low-level crimes. 

And yes, there was a tremendous amount of pushback from the rank and file, as well as the command staff. Change is hard!

Since most other Washington police agencies haven’t made similar changes, the Legislature stepped in to limit police pursuits. For example, pursuits are limited to violent offenses and DUI, and police can’t chase for low-level crimes. In addition, the pursuit must be necessary to identify or apprehend a person, or the person pursued must pose an imminent threat to the safety that outweighs the risk of the pursuit.

If these conditions aren’t met, it doesn’t mean that the police work is done; it means that it is safer to investigate and apprehend the suspect at a different time.

Detractors of the new law try to blame it for an increase in retail theft rings, and other incidents, but the data is just not there to support those assertions. Others say we can’t let people be disrespectful and elude the law. The truth is, there are many other ways to identify and bring the law breakers to justice, and high-speed chases are usually not the right tactic.

To make their point, opponents of the new law have presented incomplete and misleading data intended to stoke fears and to blame the new law for crimes, including car theft. But there is more to the story. Based on the FBI’s Uniform Crime Report, the uptick in car thefts began in 2020, a year before the new law went into effect, and the trend is nationwide, not just here in Washington. Historically, Washington is known for car-theft rates much higher than the rest of the country.

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The other argument made is “speeders are not pulling over,” more than 900 times between January and mid-May, according to the Washington State Patrol. Unfortunately, criminal suspects get away all the time. Do we really want a potentially lethal police pursuit for the noncriminal infraction of speeding, expired tabs, or failure to signal?

It would be a mistake to roll back the new law on vehicular pursuits, especially before even allowing time to see the outcomes — and early data looks strong. Based on data from Fatal Encounters, deaths from vehicular pursuits in Washington state have dropped from seven each in 2019 and 2020 and four in 2021 before the new law’s enactment, to just one in the 12 months since the law took effect. And it’s not just civilian safety at issue. In 2018, Kent Officer Diego Moreno was killed by a patrol car pursuing a suspect.

In the last legislative session, Senate Bill 5919 would have reduced the police pursuit standard for violent crimes from probable cause to reasonable suspicion, which would match the DUI pursuit standard. This change makes sense. Probable cause is an arrest standard while reasonable suspicion is an investigatory standard. For example, if a police officer rolls up on a bank robbery or other crime of violence and sees a car drive off at a high rate of speed, common sense and reasonable suspicion tells us that car should be stopped to see if the occupant(s) are involved. If the vehicle doesn’t stop, it is likely worth a pursuit due to the nature of the underlying crime.

After 40 years as a police officer, I know firsthand the frustration of crime victims, and the frustration of officers and deputies when the suspect gets away. But risking lives is not the solution. No one wants an innocent person to die because of a police pursuit. 

We need cooler heads to prevail and take the time to value human life over property crimes to see the benefits of the new law.