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Feb 22, 2023 6 min read

Police reform laws face pushback in Olympia

Police reform laws face pushback in Olympia
(Photo illustration by Valerie Osier)
Table of Contents

With the backing of law enforcement and eastern Washington politicians, the state legislature is considering changes to 2021 police reforms.

By Colette Buck

In the wake of nationwide protests over police violence, the Washington state legislature passed more than a dozen influential policing bills in 2021 — covering everything from police pursuits to physical restraint techniques and police misconduct investigations. The bills became an immediate source of controversy across the state.

After making some tweaks to those reforms in 2022, state legislators are currently considering additional changes including bills that would establish an independent office for prosecution of police use of force and change laws that govern police chases.

Some local politicians and law enforcement officials have been supportive of changing the state laws. Spokane Mayor Nadine Woodward said the reforms needed to be reigned in to balance accountability with public safety. When Spokane’s own police reform roundtable ended in acrimony in late January, Woodward said her administration would turn its attention to state bills. On February 13, Woodward visited the state capitol to lobby on several issues including police reform. In a video address summarizing her trip, Woodward said, “Spokane needs fixes to the drug, pursuit, and property crimes laws that set clear expectations for accountability while leaving room for compassion.”

The Spokane NAACP Criminal Justice Committee is opposing changes to police pursuit laws and urging the legislature to develop an independent state office that can prosecute police use of force cases.

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In hot lukewarm pursuit

The Washington State House of Representatives Community Safety, Justice, and Re-Entry Committee recently passed a substitute version of House Bill 1363 to give officers more discretion in vehicle pursuits if they have a “reasonable suspicion” the person committed a violent crime, a sexual offense, an escape, DUI, or domestic violence. The new bill would change the existing law that only allows officers to pursue a suspect if they have probable cause or actual evidence a crime was committed, and then get approval from a supervisor to pursue the suspect. Reasonable suspicion requires less evidence than probable cause.

The original language of HB 1363 and the substitute bill remove the requirement for supervisory permission to start a pursuit and immediately notify a supervisor. Officers and their supervisors would still need to discuss alternatives and make a plan to use approved intervention techniques, like ramming into fleeing cars (PIT maneuvers), spike strips, or other tire deflation devices, to end the pursuit. The bill would also create additional training requirements for officers engaging in pursuits.

Statewide law enforcement advocacy organizations are supporting HB 1363 because they say criminals have been emboldened by police pursuit limits. According to the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs, there has been a 61 % increase in vehicle thefts statewide since the pursuit restriction went into place in July 2021. In a statement released after the bill passed the House Committee on Community Safety, Justice, and Reentry committee, Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs Executive Director Steven Strachan applauded the committee for passing the bill.

“We can’t allow offenders the advantage over victims and to just drive away,” Strachan said. “We can, and should, fix the pursuit law to fall in line with Washington State’s duty of care standards and enable appropriate discretion for police vehicle pursuits. The current proposals in the legislature still include strong restrictions on pursuits, and a common-sense balancing test: that the risks of not arresting the suspect outweigh the risk of the pursuit itself.”

Meanwhile, police watchdog and local BIPOC organizations, including Washington Coalition for Police Accountability (WCPA), Spokane Community Against Racism (SCAR), and Smart Justice Spokane, oppose changes to the pursuit laws. Data gathered by WCPA suggests the current limits on vehicular pursuits have reduced deaths related to police pursuits by 67%.

The WCPA study, compiled by retired University of Washington statistics and sociology professor Martina Morris, has come under scrutiny from other academics studying criminal justice who claim the study lacked “methodological rigor.” After calling for an independent review of her website containing the data, Morris admitted there were limitations to the set and called on local law enforcement to do a better job of tracking and sharing the information needed to complete the study.

HB 1363 didn’t go to the full house for a vote, but instead, was passed to the Transportation Committee where it currently sits awaiting a hearing on Friday. Friday is also the deadline for bills to be passed out of their committee. The next step for HB 1363 would be to pass the house and head to the Senate Law and Justice Committee, where it would face stiff headwinds.

On Monday, Law and Justice Committee Chair, and long-time King County deputy prosecutor, State Sen. Minka Dhagra, told the Seattle Times she may not even give the bill a hearing in her committee, which would effectively kill it. “Before we change the law of the land, we need to have a compelling reason to do so,” Sen. Dhagra said.

Study hall

A possible solution to the war of conflicting data on police pursuits could arrive in House Bill 1586 and its companion, Senate Bill 5533. Members of the House Committee of Community Safety passed HB 1586, which would require the Washington State Criminal Justice Training Commission to establish a workgroup and grant program surrounding vehicle pursuits by June 30, 2023. The workgroup would be made up of various law enforcement agencies and advocacy organizations statewide, civil groups representing BIPOC communities and unhoused persons, and family members of victims of police use of force.

The bill requires the group to develop legislative policy recommendations for when pursuits are and aren’t justified, the appropriate procedures and tactics during pursuits, the technology to manage pursuits, and how best to respond to people injured in pursuits. Any findings from the workgroup would be compiled into a report with policy recommendations by December 2023.

Both bills are scheduled for hearings on the day of the deadline to make it out of committee. We’ll know more about their future then.

No longer keeping tabs

The Washington State House Transportation Committee is scheduled to review a bill that would change what traffic violations and crimes police prioritize when making traffic stops. Under House Bill 1513, law enforcement officers could no longer stop vehicles for low-risk violations, also known as ‘nonmoving’ violations, such as expired tabs, misdemeanor warrants or equipment failures. The only way an officer could pull over a vehicle for similar violations would be if it caused an immediate danger to traffic safety, like two broken tail lights, broken headlights or a severely cracked windshield.

Instead, officers would prioritize traffic stops involving high-risk safety issues, like impaired driving, distracted driving and speeding. Officers would also need to inform dispatch of their intended stop, inform the driver and passengers of the reason, and document the reason. HB 1513 creates new limits on when law enforcement is allowed to search a vehicle they stop. Officers would be required to prove the driver committed, with reasonable suspicion, a criminal offense that’s separate from the reason for the traffic stop.

Proponents of the bill say focusing on these types of violations makes traffic safer and reduces racial inequity. According to a 2019 analysis by InvestigateWest, the Washington State Patrol searched the vehicles of Black, Hispanic, and Pacific Islanders at twice the rate of White drivers. Often, searches turned up little evidence to suggest a crime. Native American drivers were searched five times more often than white drivers. In a follow-up two years after the InvestigateWest piece, the State Patrol acknowledged the disproportionality and said it hadn’t gotten any better.

The bill is scheduled for executive session in the House Transportation Committee on Thursday, Feb. 23, and it includes new language that would provide funding to reduce the economic burden of ‘nonmoving violations’ on marginalized groups and low-income citizens.

Independent ‘use of force’ prosecutions

If enacted into law, Washington State House Bill 1579 would authorize the Office of the Attorney General of Washington State to investigate, initiate, and conduct prosecutions of crimes involving police use of deadly force in the state of Washington. According to the Washington Coalition for Police Accountability, establishing an independent prosecutions unit within the Washington State Attorney General’s Office could “change law enforcement behavior and police culture, which will reduce violence and save lives.”

Under the bill, the Attorney General’s prosecutions unit would handle the Office of Independent Investigations’ caseload to increase impartiality when investigating police use of force incidents. The new language does not strip the authority of the prosecuting attorney within the county where the incident happened to prosecute those involved.

If both the county prosecuting attorney and the Attorney General file an indictment with the exact same charges, the court will determine which case would best promote the fairest outcome. House Bill 1579 has been referred to the House Committee on Appropriations and scheduled for an executive session on Friday, February 24.

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