Washington Senate approves bill to change police pursuit law

A contentious bill that would give police greater ability to pursue people in vehicles has narrowly passed the Senate in Washington state.

Senate Bill 5352 would allow a law enforcement officer to initiate a chase if the officer has reasonable suspicion that a person in a vehicle has committed or is committing a crime, the Daily Herald reported.

Current law sets a higher threshold of probable cause in order to engage in a chase.

Under the measure, alleged crimes for which a pursuit can be undertaken include a violent offense, a sex offense, domestic violence-related offenses, driving under the influence of alcohol or trying to escape arrest. It limits vehicular pursuits to situations where the subject of the vehicular pursuit poses a serious risk of harm to others.

The bill passed 26-23 with 16 Democrats and 10 Republicans in support. Thirteen Democrats and 10 Republicans voted against it.

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The bill follows an element of policing reform passed in 2021 in response to the 2020 police murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis and other police killings. The goal of the reforms was to reduce the potential for violence and death in police responses.

The 2021 measure toughened the requirements for officer pursuit. Officers now need probable cause to arrest someone before initiating a pursuit rather than reasonable suspicion. Some law enforcement officials and city leaders say the revision emboldened suspected criminals to flee crime scenes before authorities could question them.

Those seeking greater police accountability contend communities are safer as fewer innocent bystanders have been injured or killed with the decline in high-speed chases.

In January, after the Senate Law and Justice Committee held a public hearing on the bill, the chair, Sen. Manka Dhingra, D-Redmond, said it would not advance. The issue of vehicle pursuits had become too politicized, she said.

But with a 5 p.m. deadline Wednesday for action on non-budget bills originating in its chamber, and with action on a similar bill unlikely in the House, Senate Democratic leadership pulled the legislation directly to the floor. Dhingra then brought an amended version closely mirroring the House bill.

The Washington Senate approves a bill that would change the police pursuit law. 

Its new provisions cover training of officers and the role of supervisors in the conduct of chases. The hope, she said, is that pursuits will increase public safety but not result in members of the public getting hurt.

Sen. John Lovick, D-Mill Creek, a former state trooper and Snohomish County sheriff, sponsored the bill.

“I know this is a difficult decision for most members,” he said. “I hope this legislation will strike a balance to give our fantastic police officers the tools they need to do their jobs.”

Republicans unsuccessfully offered amendments that failed to add auto theft and reckless driving to the list of crimes for which chases could be undertaken.

“This doesn’t go far enough,” said Sen. Keith Wagoner, R-Sedro-Woolley. “I’m sorry I cannot support this bill today.”

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Senators in both parties said they hoped for more but didn’t want the conversation to end at this stage of the session.

“Anything is better than what we have now,” said Sen. Ann Rivers, R-La Center.

The bill heads next to the House for consideration.

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