Police pursuit for ‘reasonable suspicion’ allowed again

At the stroke of midnight, police pursuits for any law violation will again be legal in Washington State.

Statewide, law enforcement will once again be able to chase after anyone they “reasonably suspect” has committed a crime. That’s a big change from the current law that says they must have “probable cause.”

By at least one measure, fewer people died in pursuits under the current law. That’s according to a study done a year and a half into the study of the impact of curbing police pursuits.

But law enforcement says those numbers don’t compare to the uptick in crime and the number of criminals who got away because they knew the cop probably couldn’t legally go after them.

“Tonight, at midnight the law goes into effect and so does our policy,” said Sheriff Derek Sanders. “And that will allow for a larger scope of vehicles we can pursue for.”

It is the day Thurston County Sheriff helped fight for the legal right to pursue people they have a reasonable suspicion have committed a crime.

“Doesn’t mean we have to,” said Sheriff Sanders. “Doesn’t mean we will. But means we can. It affords us the latitude to make that decision ourselves.”

Under current law, police could not pursue a suspect unless they had probable cause. Even then, a supervisor had to make the final call. Sanders says that wreaked havoc.

“It turned every shoplifter into a 100 mile-an-hour bullet going down the road when we tried to stop them,” Sheriff Sanders. “Shoplifters used to pull over. Why all of a sudden, the change? Right when the law takes place.”

But proponents of the tighter pursuit restrictions say they saved lives. A retired University of Washington sociologist found in the first 15 months after the pursuit law was tightened, the number of deaths due to chases declined by 80%. Eleven people died in active police pursuits the 15 months before. Fifteen months into the new law, just two people were killed.

“I’ve seen that study,” said Chris Loftis. “I’ve seen people challenge that study.”

And this spokesman for the Washington State Patrol says those stats tells only part of the story.

“What that didn’t take into account is that the people you are not stopping may go on to do dangerous things themselves.

In fact, Chris Loftis says before the law changed, WSP never even kept stats on how many people flee traffic stops. But they do now. And last year, more than 3,300 drivers refused to stop for a trooper.

Tomorrow, however, will be a new day. So, you’ve been warned.

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