Tense exchanges at state legislative hearing on police pursuit initiative

Brian Heywood of Let’s Go Washington testifies in support of Initiative 2113, which would eliminate restrictions on police vehicle chases. To his right is State Rep. Jim Walsh, R-Aberdeen and to his left James McMahan, policy director at Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs. The House Community Safety, Justice and Reentry and the Senate Law and Justice committees heard public testimony on the initiative on Wednesday, Feb. 28 in Olympia. (Photos by Bill Lucia/Washington State Standard)

State lawmakers embarked Wednesday to give police in Washington more leeway to pursue suspected criminals knowing that if they don’t act in the next few days, voters very likely will in November.

A citizen initiative bound for the fall ballot would erase restrictions on when police can engage in vehicle pursuits. Law enforcement groups have said the constraints emboldened criminals and contributed to an increase in crime.

Initiatives to the Legislature

In Washington, citizens can gather signatures on a measure to send to voters on the ballot or to the Legislature to enact into law.

If an initiative sent to the Legislature is certified, with the secretary of state verifying it has enough people signed on in support, the Legislature has three options:

They can adopt the initiative into law as proposed. They can reject the initiative, sending it to the ballot for voters to decide. Or they can propose an alternative measure to send to voters alongside the original.

The group Let’s Go Washington, with financial support from investor Brian Heywood, backed six citizen initiatives submitted to the Legislature this year.

Initiatives to repeal the state’s new capital gains tax, erase its carbon market and make it easier for workers to opt out of Washington’s new long-term care insurance program are on track to go to voters this fall.

But lawmakers could make the changes themselves by enacting Initiative 2113 before the session ends March 7. They took the first step Wednesday with a hearing in which supporters and opponents disagreed on whether the measure would enhance public safety or put more people at risk.

“When I talk to cops and sheriff’s deputies and other people in that line of work, they told me the one thing more than anything else that (they) need is the ability to chase bad people,” State Rep. Jim Walsh, R-Aberdeen, the initiative sponsor, told members of the Senate Law and Justice and House community safety committees.

“People of this state are suffering increasing rates of crime,” he continued. “And they’re calling out to us to please do something. This is the best, single something we can do.”

Those seeking greater police accountability say fewer innocent bystanders have been injured or killed due to changes in state law that have led to a decline in high-speed chases. The initiative, if passed, would drag the state backward, they contend.

“Unrestricted police pursuits just don’t make sense. Allowing vehicle pursuits for any infraction makes the streets more dangerous,” said Sonia Joseph, president of the board of directors of the Washington Coalition for Police Accountability, whose son was shot and killed by police following a traffic stop and chase in 2017.

“The current policy in state law saves lives,” she said

Wednesday’s public hearing was the last of three on initiatives filed by Walsh that, if not approved by the Legislature, will be on the ballot this November. It followed hearings for initiatives concerning parents’ voices in the education of their children and taxes.

All three measures are scheduled for committee votes on Friday. If passed by the House and Senate, they will become law as initiatives do not require action by the governor.

Three other Walsh-introduced initiatives — ones to repeal the state’s capital gains tax, repeal its carbon market and make a payroll tax to fund the state’s long-term care insurance program voluntary — are not receiving hearings and will be in front of voters in November.

Initiative 2113 would erase changes the Legislature made last year to rules governing pursuits.

The 2023 law specified that an officer can initiate a chase if they have reasonable suspicion that a person in a vehicle has committed or is committing a violent offense, a sex offense, domestic violence-related offenses, driving under the influence of alcohol or trying to escape arrest.

Under the law, officers are to balance the necessity of carrying out the chase with the degree to which that person poses a serious risk of harm to others.

The initiative would ease both thresholds. An officer could engage in a pursuit if they have reasonable suspicion a person has violated the law. And they would consider whether the person poses a threat to the safety of others when deciding whether to go after them.

“Law enforcement recognizes the potential dangers of pursuits and shares in the belief that no one wants more pursuits. However, overly restrictive laws that allow fleeing from law enforcement to be a ‘get out of jail free’ card are not the solution,” said James McMahan, policy director for the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs.

Brian Heywood, the hedge fund manager who funded signature-gathering efforts for all six of Walsh’s initiatives, told lawmakers the point of this measure is to let local law enforcement agencies set the rules for pursuits in their jurisdiction.

“We’ve had increasing disregard for the law,” he said. “You get citizens who feel if they won’t pursue a criminal who steals a car, then why should I obey the speed limit. That is a bad precedent to put into society.”

Wednesday’s hearing had a few testy moments as Democratic legislators opposed to the bill sparred with backers.

Members of the House Community Safety, Justice and Reentry and the Senate Law and Justice committees hear public testimony on Initiative 2113, which would lift most restrictions on police vehicle chases.

In one exchange, Sen. Patty Kuderer, D-Bellevue, pressed McMahan on whether the initiative would allow a chase through a school zone to stop a vehicle with an expired registration tab if the officer had a feeling that a “bad guy” was behind the wheel.

McMahan said having a feeling about the driver isn’t enough to start a pursuit. “In no case in my mind would expired tabs constitute putting a person at risk…”

“I understand,” Kuderer interrupted, “but it is a violation of the law is it not? Doesn’t the initiative language say that there’s reasonable suspicion that they violated the law? Expired tabs would be reasonable suspicion they violated the law, would it not?”

“It also says, senator,” McMahan began.

“I’d just like to know, it does say that, right,” Kuderer said before the committee chair intervened to end the exchange.

— By Jerry Cornfield, Washington State Standard

Washington State Standard is part of States Newsroom, a nonprofit news network supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Washington State Standard maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Bill Lucia for questions: info@washingtonstatestandard.com. Follow Washington State Standard on Facebook and X.

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