Sheriff: Officers need to be able to pursue criminals

Stolen vehicles, other crimes up since law changed

More than ever when a police officer flips on the blue and red overhead lights to pull over someone in a stolen car the suspect ignores the lights and speeds away.

Restrictions placed on when officers can conduct a high-speed chase is the problem, Kitsap County Sheriff John Gese said.

Gese said the limitations are even affecting basic traffic stops, as some drivers simply refuse to pull over.

But those in opposition to changing say people killed in police pursuits since enactment of the new law has dropped 73%, from 11 to 3.

Gese and law enforcement officials across the state hope lawmakers this legislative session will modify the police pursuit law to give officers more discretion in deciding when to initiate a chase. Gese is urging county residents to join them in support of changes.

Current law limits pursuits to instances when the motorist is believed to have committed a violent offense. Driving a stolen vehicle, a property crime, does not fall into that category.

The law went in effect in mid-2021. Since then there has been a dramatic spike in stolen cars.

“Word got out very quickly to those folks who wanted to exploit the law that we could not chase somebody in a stolen vehicle. I think it provided the opportunity for people to steal cars almost with impunity,” Gese said.

Car thefts in Kitsap have more than doubled. In the six months before the law there were 256 car thefts, compared to 309 in just four months after the law went into effect, sheriff’s statistics say. Statewide, in 2022 there were 45,000 stolen vehicles, almost double the 23,000 in 2019.

Despite the numbers, Gov. Jay Inslee continues to believe the reform is not the cause of the rise in crime.

On a recent evening shift, there were three instances when deputies encountered stolen vehicles, and each time the driver took off at high rate of speed, preventing a pursuit, Gese reported.

The limits on pursuits are impacting communities, the sheriff said. “Our citizens are paying the price of it. We are seeing a lot more cars stolen, and people being victimized. We are also seeing a lot of bleed-over where people are stealing items and using them in the commission of other crimes, whether it be robberies or burglaries,” he added.

The law also states that police are limited to the pursuit of a vehicle only when the suspect is accused of or committing a violent crime, a sex offense or is suspected to be under the influence, among other stipulations.

“This is occurring at a time when serious injury and fatal collisions are also increasing locally and across the country, and we are receiving more reports of aggressive and reckless driving,” Gese said.

Gese has taken a stance against the revisions since his appointment as sheriff. “As sheriff, I recognize that police pursuits are dangerous, and we have always addressed the risks and the limitations in our policy and training,” he said. “But current state law is too restrictive and provides a dangerous opportunity for those who choose to exploit the law.”

Three bipartisan bills have been introduced, all with some intention to repeal the 2021 reform and give law enforcement more room to use their own discretion when deciding to pursue.

The Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs representing law enforcement agencies across the state support balanced changes to the state pursuit law. Those changes would “require officers to carefully gauge whether a police pursuit’s risks outweigh the need to apprehend the suspect and other criteria that would allow more discretion than currently allowed,” Gese said, “but still require strong controls on pursuits and send a message to those who are engaging in this lawless behavior.”

Not everyone supports modifying the police pursuit law. The Washington Coalition for Police Accountability advocates for policies that it says reduces police violence and increases police accountability. “Lives are being saved with the statewide standard for police vehicular pursuits enacted in 2021. We must not roll back this commonsense policy,” the coalition says on its website.

Kitsap News Group reporter Elisha Meyer contributed to this report.