Police: Amended pursuit law a step in right direction

Law enforcement lobbying for additional funding

PORT ANGELES — State lawmakers passed a bill this session easing rules around police pursuits, but local law enforcement leaders said there’s more work to be done to address public safety.

Initiative 2113, a citizen-led effort that loosened regulations on law enforcement’s ability to engage in vehicle pursuits, was among the bills passed in the legislative session that ended March 7.

It rolled back a series of reform bills passed in 2021 that were aimed at increasing police accountability but have been criticized for limiting law enforcement’s ability to tackle crime.

Rules of pursuit

One of those bills placed restrictions on when officers could engage in vehicle pursuits, which law enforcement said led to an increase in people fleeing from traffic stops with officers powerless to pursue.

“We were happy that the pursuit laws have changed to a certain degree to allow us to pursue people for more than just violent offenses,” Jefferson County Sheriff Joe Nole said. “I don’t think it’s fully reversed. It’s almost there.”

The amended law, “allow(s) an officer to conduct the vehicular pursuit where there is reasonable suspicion a person has violated the law, provided all other statutory requirements for the vehicular pursuit are met,” the initiative said.

Police pursuits have long been governed by case law, police policy and training, said Port Angeles Police Chief Brian Smith, but when policies become legal requirements, it can hamper officers’ ability to act.

“We can’t operate if every policy becomes a legal requirement,” Smith said. “Law enforcement has a difficult time when you make following a policy a legal requirement. It’s essentially putting us under the lens of perfection.”

Law enforcement officials on the Peninsula said there seemed to be recognition in the Legislature that the raft of bills passed in 2021 went too far and that rollbacks were needed.

Officers are still not allowed to interview juvenile suspects without a lawyer present, which can lead to youth being taken into police custody simply because they can’t speak with officers at the scene.

Other bills that would further restrict police actions didn’t make it through the Legislature this year, nor did a bill that would have allowed the state Attorney General’s office to investigate local law enforcement agencies in the same way the U.S. Department of Justice does.

Above all, local law enforcement officials said they need funding. Nole said the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs has been advocating for additional funding for a new training facility for patrol and corrections officers to address the state’s backlog of cadets. JCSO was also hoping to get additional funding locally for recruitment and retention.

Officers noted Washington ranks last of all 50 states and the District of Columbia for the amount of officers per 1,000 residents.

“It’s hard to get the number of staffing you need, the resources you need,” said Jeff Thaxton, deputy chief of the Port Townsend Police Department. “It’s hard to give the citizens the services they need.”

Thaxton said low staffing levels can have officers working a lot of overtime, which is costly and can lead to burnout.

Law enforcement agencies across the country are facing a shortage of officers and departments have raised their starting salaries in an effort to attract new recruits.

While the state did provide funding for drug task forces this year, last year the state Department of Commerce expanded the list of organizations eligible for Edward Byrne Memorial Justice Assistance Grants, or Byrne-JAG grants, meaning less of that money is going to law enforcement agencies.

The lack of assured funding from the Byrne-JAG grants creates uncertainty for law enforcement, Smith said, because they can’t count on having the same resources year to year.

Smith said a bill that would allow cities to keep one-tenth of 1 percent of sales tax for public safety has been in the Legislature for years but has yet to pass.

“For us here locally, that would be like winning the lottery,” Smith said.

The Peninsula’s law enforcement officials thanked state Reps. Steve Tharinger and Mike Chapman and Sen. Kevin Van De Wege, all Democrats, for their willingness to listen and amend police regulations.

“I think there was a lot ground made this session on getting things back to a more common sense approach,” Nole said. “And just like anywhere else, law enforcement can always do better, just like any other group. It’s always good to be talking about this stuff.”

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Reporter Peter Segall can be reached by email at peter.segall@peninsulanews.us.

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