‘Going to lose law and order’: Frustrations grow for deputies, prosecutors over police-pursuit laws

SPOKANE, Wash. — Property crime is rising, but the Sheriff’s Office says there isn’t much they can do.

The Spokane County Sheriff’s Office (SCSO) says they’re handcuffed by new laws. Deputies can no longer decide on their own when to pursue a suspect. The new law is supposed to keep deputies and the public safe by preventing high-speed chases. Now, some in the criminal justice system are calling its goals into question.

On Saturday, SCSO says Ziggy’s Home Improvement was being burglarized. They say they caught one suspect running away, but the other drove away. Frustrations are now growing for deputies with HB 1054.

“Now, under Washington state law, even if we have probable cause that a non-violent crime has occurred, we cannot pursue the vehicle when it flees,” said John Nowels. He’s the undersheriff for the Sheriff’s Office.

Property crime isn’t classified as a violent crime, but it’s happening more often. The Sheriff’s Office says commercial theft is up 31 percent in Spokane County. Now, prosecutors are worried.

“Their assailant, the person that stole property from them hasn’t been apprehended,” said Preston McCollam. He’s a senior deputy prosecuting attorney with the Spokane County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office.

He says while the law has good intentions, it needs work.

“When someone can commit a crime right in front of a uniformed police officer and the statute says you’re not allowed to chase them, it makes the entire community less safe,” he said.

Under the new law, law enforcement can only pursue someone when they have probable cause a violent crime or sex crime is happening or if they think someone is driving drunk. Senator Andy Billig says he expects revisions to the law in 2023.

He also says high-speed chases are dangerous. Undersheriff Nowels says they’re trained and should make the final call.

“That’s where the problem is,” he added. “The legislation takes away local decision making, decision making by the professionals who know how to balance the need for apprehension with the need for public safety.”

Safety is the goal but making that happen is the issue.

“We’re going to lose law and order in our cities,” Nowels concluded.

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