Snoqualmie Police await reform of state’s pursuit law

“It has created a very brazen criminal population in the state of Washington,” says chief.

Snoqualmie Police Chief Brian Lynch said his department is “reaping the benefits of a failed experiment” of state legislation limiting police pursuits.

“If you look at the amount of thefts we had just at the outlet malls in North Bend, we’re looking at a 17% increase,” Lynch said at the Feb. 20 Snoqualmie Public Safety Committee meeting. “We gave too many rights to the criminals and not enough to the good guys. We have to revisit some of the laws that took away our power to chase people down and stop them.”

Lynch was referring to House Bill 1054, passed in 2021, which placed restrictions on specific police equipment and use-of-force tactics. The bill also increased the threshold of evidence required for police-led vehicular pursuits.

Before 2021, vehicular pursuits — when officers take evasive action, drive at high speeds or violate rules of the road in pursuit of a suspect — were permitted when officers had reasonable suspicion that the driver or passenger had violated traffic or criminal laws, or had an arrest warrant.

Under the 2021 legislation, police pursuits were allowed when officers had probable cause to believe that the suspect committed violent offenses, sex offenses, vehicular assault or was driving under the influence.

“It has created a very brazen criminal population in the state of Washington,” Lynch said. “They are not afraid. They will pull a gun and start shooting if you try to stop them.”

Between 2014 and 2020, about 1,200 suspects per year on average fled from police in the state, according to Washington State Patrol data. In 2022, after HB 1054 went into effect and the standard of police pursuits was changed to “probable cause,” 3,100 suspects fled.

In 2022, Washington ranked third nationwide in car thefts per capita, with 45,000 cars stolen, according to the National Insurance Crime Bureau’s 2022 Vehicle Theft Trend Report. Before HB 1054 was passed, the statewide record for car thefts for a year was 30,000

“If you look back at the crime statistics we got for 2022, it showed a 5% increase in crimes against persons statewide,” Lynch said, referencing the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs 2022 Annual Report. “And a 10% increase in crimes against property from 2021 to 2022. There is a crime against persons event once every 4.8 minutes and a crime against property every 80 seconds.”

Senate Bill 5352, effective March 3, 2023, marked a slight step down from the heightened requirements of HB 1054. It lowered the threshold required for officers engaging in a vehicular pursuit from probable cause to reasonable suspicion for limited crimes, including violent offenses, sex offenses, vehicular assault or driving under the influence.

Pursuits are also warranted under SB 5352 if officers believe the threat a suspect poses to society outweighs the safety risks associated with the pursuit.

But, Chief Lynch doesn’t think this reform is enough.

“It doesn’t change the number of pursuits we can enter because those high-level cases are far and few in between,” Lynch said. “It didn’t do anything to curb what I feel is an epidemic of people running from the police because they know we can’t chase them.”

Toward the end of 2023, about 434,000 Washingtonians signed a petition for Initiative 2113, which, if enacted, would allow vehicle pursuits if police have a reasonable suspicion that a person has violated the law, restoring the pursuit threshold to its standing before HB 1054, according to the Washington Senate Republicans.

The Washington Coalition for Police Accountability, which formed following the 2020 murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer, opposes the initiative. The coalition states that the current legislation is balanced, effective and decreases pursuit-related fatalities.

“Initiative 2113 seeks to drag the state backward, allowing pursuits for any infraction, which makes the streets more dangerous for all of us,” wrote the coalition on its website. “Our current pursuit policy saves lives.”

While the state has seen an 80% decline in vehicular deaths caused by police pursuits since the passing of HB 1054, those in favor of reinstating reasonable suspicion laws have rallied around the families of victims killed by criminals driving stolen vehicles.

“I’m not saying this to make light of any families that have ever lost an innocent person that was killed or injured during a police pursuit,” Lynch said in support of the initiative. “But, we have taken a turn from a society of laws and holding people accountable for breaking those laws to now a society where no one is held accountable.”

The GOP-backed Let’s Go Washington initiative, having surpassed the minimum requirement of signatures to be certified by the state, was introduced to the House and Senate in January. A public hearing for the initiative will be held on Feb. 28 (after press time) in the House Committee on Community Safety, Justice and Reentry and the Senate Committee on Law and Justice.

If the Democratic majority decides to enact the initiative as written, it will become law without going to the ballot. If the state rejects, refuses to act or proposes an alternative to the initiative, it will be on the November 2024 ballot.