Washington police are allowed to pursue more suspects this year. Are they?
By Simon Sefzik, Future 42 and former State Senator (42nd District)
As you may have seen, the Seattle Police Department has been in the headlines recently over inappropriate comments made by an officer. But this is not the only issue currently facing the SPD.
If you keep up with Future 42’s content, you are likely already familiar with the controversy regarding police authority to pursue suspected criminals. Back in 2021, police were heavily restricted from pursuing suspects for most crimes, emboldening criminals as a result. This year, the legislature took some partial steps to fix this, allowing police to pursue using a “reasonable suspicion” standard for a specific list of certain crimes.
Senate Bill 5352 passed earlier this year, and police were, theoretically, supposed to be able to pursue suspected criminals for at least a narrow list of criminal offenses again. While the law that passed this year was inadequate, it was at least a step in the right direction.
Interestingly, it looks like some police departments, such as Seattle’s, still haven’t updated their vehicle pursuit policies, despite the new law.
KIRO radio’s Jason Rantz reported back in May that a provision of the new law requires that officers engaging in a pursuit must have completed an emergency vehicle operators course and have updated emergency vehicle operator training within the past two years. If they don’t have that, an officer can’t pursue suspected criminals. While the finer details of the training course will change depending on the department, the idea is simple: law enforcement officers should be adept in emergency vehicle maneuvers and safety techniques so that, if they need to pursue, it can be done safely.
Mike Solan, the president of the Seattle Police Officers Guild, told Jason Rantz that “The fact is, we’re out of compliance with the training. If we engage in a pursuit, we’re violating state law.” Apparently, the last time Seattle had its emergency vehicle operations curriculum (EVOC) training, it was back in 2020 and not very many officers attended.
This story led Future 42 to reach out to several other police departments in the state and see whether this new requirement in the law has hampered the ability of other departments to comply and authorize pursuits.
Here’s a brief overview, based on the answers I received from various police departments, about the implementation of this new law:
EVERETT: The Everett Police Department (EPD) replied via email and outlined the three requirements for any officer of theirs involved in a pursuit:
“1. Have completed EVOC training.
- Have completed updated emergency vehicle operator training within the previous two years (that includes a risk assessment analysis weighing of failing to apprehend versus the risks of the pursuit), AND
- Be “certified” in at least one pursuit intervention option such as Stop Sticks. (Stop Sticks are currently EPD’s only pursuit intervention option.) EPD is taking the approach that all officers will meet this mandate and our Training Unit is working on a plan to ensure all commissioned staff meet these elements.”
Additionally, Everett PD reported that 91.6% of their officers (191 exactly) are currently qualified to pursue.
MARYSVILLE: According to Marysville City Councilmember Mark James, who is familiar with the Police Department’s procedure, “Our officers are EVOC (Emergency Vehicle Operator Course) qualified to participate in authorized pursuits as that is a part of their academy training. After two years, officers must do some sort of ongoing training in pursuit intervention options like PIT maneuvers and Stop Sticks (spikes). We typically train in these maneuvers every other year to [e]nsure that officers are up to date with current laws and department policy…FYI, our department rarely engages in pursuits and reserves that option by answering the question “Do the risks of not stopping someone outweigh the risks of a pursuit?”
Further, even after answering that question and receiving authorization from a watch commander, an officer must continually reassess depending on many different factors like the nature of the roads and layout of the community, the “crime” committed, time of day/night (heavy/light traffic), etc…”
PIERCE COUNTY SHERIFF’S DEPARTMENT: A Public Information Officer with the Pierce County Sheriff’s Department provided this response to my inquiry: “We are not experiencing the challenges Seattle PD are. I am providing you with some great information on how the Pierce County Sheriff’s Department has been handling the pursuit policy and law changes (even though we have been doing most of these things long before the law went into effect).
- We implemented department-wide training when the first round of pursuit law changes came about in 2021
- We again implemented department-wide training for the updates that came in [2023’s new law] ESB5352
- The highlighted section regarding EVOC training hasn’t really affected us as we already had a department requirement for biennial EVOC training. That training has and continues to include training on pursuits, pursuit decision making, and pursuit intervention such as stop sticks and PIT.
- As another pursuit prevention tool we have recently purchased two StarChase GPS launchers which can be used if applicable to tag a fleeing vehicle. This will allow us to track the vehicle, without having to pursue it unless necessary, and then proceed to the vehicle’s ultimate stop location.
- The department also purchased the Terminator Stop Sticks which are a different, faster deflating, stop stick that can be used when it is apparent or likely that a vehicle may attempt to flee.
- In addition, all pursuits are reviewed by command staff. If mistakes are made, they are addressed by more training or discipline depending on each case and circumstance.
SEATTLE POLICE: A Public Information Officer with the City of Seattle Police Department sent me a copy of their pursuit policy, which articulates when an officer can engage in a pursuit (as outlined in state law) and affirmed that only officers who have undergone training can pursue. However, Seattle PD did not respond to an inquiry about how many of their officers have undergone the required training to pursue. It’s unclear whether Seattle PD has taken steps to train their officers in EVOC, and thus unclear whether the pursuit changes from the Legislature have had any substantial impact on policing practices in the city.
SKAGIT COUNTY: According to an email response from the Skagit County Sheriff’s Office, “[O]ur department requires that deputies attend EVOC training once a year. The last time that the EVOC training was done was May of 2022. The reason that it has not been performed for this year is because the facility we have had it at for many years has advised us they no longer want to host it, due to the damage that our patrol cars cause to their asphalt. That being said, we are looking for another place to have the EVOC course at this time.”
SNOHOMISH COUNTY: According to Sheriff Adam Fortney, “At the moment of this general order [the law provision of the law requiring EVOC training], it appears that we had less than 20 patrol deputies not qualified to pursue under this new policy. This excludes deputies that because of their assignments (Detectives, administrative, etc.) would not be involved or be equipped to pursue anyway.
In a nutshell, we have always trained in EVOC and other techniques to stop a pursuit so the SCSO [Snohomish County Sheriff’s Office] was up to speed on the new training requirements in the new law. We didn’t stop there. Our training department added additional classes in EVOC, Spike Strips and PIT to get the remainder of our personnel in pursuit compliance with the new law and we had a class as recent as last week. Historically speaking this is something the Sheriff’s Office has always done and we lead the area in this training. The training requirement was not a huge change for us, but we did need to get some additional classes in there.”
SPOKANE POLICE DEPARTMENT: A Public Information Officer with the Spokane Police Department provided me with their policy manual and this response: “SPD conducts multiple “in-service” trainings throughout the year. These department-wide courses allow SPD to convey the most pertinent topics and developments to officers. During our summer in-service training all our officers went through emergency vehicle operator training in order to comply with the recent legislation.”
WHATCOM COUNTY: The Whatcom County Sheriff’s Office (WCSO) provided me with their written pursuit training guide and this answer, which has been edited for length:
“The WCSO updated our policy as soon as the legislation was signed, and had it out to our deputies on May 23, 2023….To answer your question about how the new training requirement may have limited our ability to engage in vehicle pursuits, the answer is not really. The WCSO has required regular EVOC training for years (which includes driving, PIT, and spike strip deployment), with a focus on those working uniformed patrol. While there was probably a few deputies who did not attend EVOC training recently for various reasons, these deputies are not generally in the position to engage in pursuits.
The consequence for not having attended training is that the deputy cannot engage in a pursuit. However, pursuits are not a common occurrence. In 2022 the WCSO engaged in 10 pursuits. So far in 2023 we have had 12 pursuits. Before COVID and the social justice movement of 2020, we had 17 pursuits in 2019…”
YAKIMA COUNTY SHERIFF: A Public Information Officer provided a copy of their updated pursuit policy and said, “Our office has been through the required EVOC training.”
SUMMARY: Without the required EVOC trainings, police cannot legally engage in vehicular pursuits, making reforms from the legislature moot. Transparency is important when it comes to public safety. It’s critical for you to know what your local police are allowed to do, and the type of training that they have received. Additionally, it’s important to remember this: The current pursuit law does not require police officers engage in pursuits. Rather, it gives police departments throughout the state the discretion to allow pursuits based on their unique needs. The restrictions from the legislature have prevented departments from even making that choice, castigating nearly all pursuits as too dangerous.
While police departments continue to navigate compliance with state law, it’s important to remember police are still handcuffed because of current pursuit legislation. Even if officers have undergone the required training, they are still not able to pursue for crimes like hit and runs, burglary, theft of a firearm, stalking, stolen vehicles, and more. (By the way, there’s an initiative, I-2113, that is collecting signatures to qualify for the 2024 legislative session and next year’s ballot that would fix these issues by allowing police to pursue using the reasonable suspicion standard).
Seattle appears to be behind other departments regarding compliance with state pursuit policy. As this major city continues to suffer from crime and lawlessness, the lack of pursuits may be a contributing factor. Public safety can’t wait – especially in Seattle. It’s time to act so that our state cannot just survive but protect its citizens and thrive.