Police pursuit laws and the balance that works best | Livingston

The primary concern on the city’s list is a desire for our legislators to support reinstating pursuit laws allowing engagement for car theft and other property crimes.

Most of us have played the games of cat and mouse, capture the flag, and trivial pursuit but in real life, there is nothing trivial about a police pursuit when it becomes a race down public streets, a foot chase through neighborhoods, or an accident with collateral damage. We live in a state that has set the rules of engagement for police to pursue with the intent of limiting human damage – to the good guys as well as bad.

Some people want those rules tightened and others want them loosened. The debate begins again in earnest when the Washington State Legislature convenes in January 2024 for a 60-day session.

As part of Federal Way’s annual legislative request for our 30th District legislators, the city hosted a breakfast on Dec. 18, to present the city’s asks. The meeting allowed us to observe the dialogue between the city council, Senator Claire Wilson, and Representative Jamila Taylor. Representative Kristine Reeves was not present due to being in Washington, D.C., on legislative business.

Meetings like this give the city cover to say they did their due diligence – they met with our legislators and shared the city’s values, needs, and wants in an open discussion. Realistically, our legislators will do what they can in terms of budget requests for transportation, capital projects, and the city’s asks dealing with local control issues, condominium liability, housing affordability, environmental incentive programs, and more.

The primary concern on the city’s list is a desire for our legislators to support reinstating pursuit laws allowing engagement for car theft and other property crimes. Presently the law allows pursuits if an officer has “reasonable suspicion” rather than “probable cause” of a violent crime.

The city’s request sounds like a positive ask, but maybe it is time to reverse engineer the problem and ask why there are so many of today’s car thieves in the 15-19-year-old age range. At some level, they must know that stealing is wrong but somehow we as a society have created a criminal opportunity cycle that is expensive, frustrating, and dangerous to all involved in the crime cycle equation.

Thieves, when caught, currently appear to have the upper hand because the courts frequently don’t hold them after arraignment. Car theft rings will continue using young impressionable teenagers driven by peer pressure until they graduate to bigger crimes, go straight, go to jail, or become groomers for the next generation of car thieves, smash and grabbers, or shoplifters.

We need to ask, how do we break the cycle, and identify, and engage potential youthful perpetrators of these crimes before they choose the “criminal path”? The tools of police work primarily focus on what we do when the criminal act is occurring and its aftermath. Their response and ability to enforce laws is essential for the public safety of everyone, but is it an efficient system? Investing in prevention is not any easier, outcomes are harder to measure, but it may be where we need to invest more time and money.

The idea of investing in the lifecycle cost of early childhood education and identifying children living in unstable environments who may be prone to following a criminal path is extremely difficult in our society – it may also be considered government intrusion. But, it may also be a necessity. We appear to not be sufficiently proactive in prevention where crime is concerned. We choose to have an – “if you do the crime you do the time” deterrent philosophy.

We can look at statistics and know the trend lines, but once a sense of crime vulnerability takes root in a community you look at the process differently. Collectively, we underestimate and fail to understand the appeal of crime, the wealth stolen or cost overall, the entities that support and thrive on crime, how chaos shapes the system, and if you are a law-abiding person – how the crime, court, and penal system fail often to establish a sense of justice, closure, and consequences.

If you have had your car stolen, had it used in a smash and grab, or been a victim of any crime, you judge the governmental systems we have differently based on personal experience and expectations. If you are black, brown, a non-English speaker, or raised in a different culture, you may have experienced profiling, and you may respond to our policing system based on your historical experiences.

Our legislators will consider the requests, but they have their own points of view, life experiences, objectives, and sense of what can be done within their respective bodies of 49 senators and 98 representatives. Rep. Taylor, as Chair of the Civil Rights and Judiciary Committee, may have the most to say directly on changes that may be made to the state’s pursuit rules and she is likely to approach the challenge with a sense of restraint, favoring efforts toward establishing public safety protections for all who may be involved in police pursuit encounters.

Do we need a robust police capability? Yes! But do we need it in all situations? There is a balance that has to be defined within our state as a way of assuring that public safety needs are met.

Since the law change in 2021, the number of people killed during pursuits in Washington, has dropped by 75% as measured pre-reform from 2015 to 2021 compared to May of 2021 to April of 2023. The people dying in a pursuit gone wrong are police officers, bystanders, passengers, and drivers of vehicles being pursued. It is the state’s responsibility to make sure that police pursuits are initiated for egregious offenses that merit accepting the public safety risk.

Living in a society that has an aversion to accepting personal responsibility surrounding crime – getting involved – and the ethics of what we do in terms of being responsible to one another makes it very difficult for the government to work well in the best interest of all. Public safety is a risk-reward challenge, and it will be up to our legislators to continue finding the balance that works best for our state.

Keith Livingston is a retired municipal management professional, lifelong artist and Federal Way resident. He can be reached at keithlivingstondesign@gmail.com