Sheriff Ty Trenary has announced new pursuit policies for Snohomish County deputies, restricting the circumstances in which they can engage in high-speed chases.
The changes go into effect today.
“We absolutely expect our pursuits will be cut in half,” Trenary said.
Law enforcement is moving away from a decades-old notion of a “need to chase everybody with a hangnail,” he said. “We needed to tighten things up.”
The new rules were rolled out at a recent training session for supervisors in the sheriff’s office. They first heard from an Illinois woman whose two young daughters were killed in a pursuit that wasn’t supposed to involve them.
In law enforcement, a profession people join to help others, the woman’s story was a powerful reminder that cops also can cause harm, said sheriff’s Sgt. Scott Robertson, who is the police chief in Granite Falls.
“It was truly life-moving for a lot of us,” he said.
Pursuits are among the most dangerous and litigated parts of police work, with significant risks for deputies, suspects, passengers and bystanders. Last week the city of Bothell paid a family $3 million to settle a lawsuit over a pursuit that ended in an innocent woman’s death.
Over the past decade, police departments around Snohomish County have adopted stricter pursuit policies, including the cities of Everett, Bothell, Lake Stevens and Mountlake Terrace. At least six people have been killed in local pursuits since 2013. High-profile cases have spurred conversations among police chiefs about a need for cultural change.
Trenary acknowledges there has been some apprehension among deputies. The new rules apply to more than 250 of them serving in areas as different as urban south Everett and rural Darrington.
“We don’t want bad guys to get away, but we have to manage that with putting people’s lives at risk,” Trenary said.
The new rules place more responsibility on sergeants who supervise the deputies and who can order them to call off a chase. The rules were designed to make it easier to terminate pursuits, especially if deputies already know the identity of the person fleeing, Trenary said.
“We’ll go back and get them later,” he said. “It’s not about letting people walk away for committing crimes.”
The policies include:
No joining pursuits that start in other jurisdictions without supervisor approval.
No calling off a pursuit and then continuing to follow the suspect, at a lower speed and without lights and sirens. If a pursuit is terminated, “the deputy has to pull over and stop the car,” Trenary said.
No chases related to misdemeanor crimes or traffic infractions, except for DUI. Pursuits are discouraged for felonies that don’t involve violence or weapons.
Stopping the chase if the suspect goes the wrong way down a highway or one-way street, or if the deputy loses radio contact with dispatchers or the supervising sergeant.
No crashing the patrol car and then taking off again despite the damage.
The risks are real. In 2014, two people crashed and died moments after local police called off pursuits. One of those chases started in Brier and went into Lake Forest Park in King County. The other was started by the Washington State Patrol on I-5 and moved onto Highway 531 in Smokey Point.
In 2013, four people died in police pursuits in Snohomish County, including a man and a woman who were going about their lives when their vehicles were struck by fleeing suspects. One of those cases involved a Bothell officer chasing a man from south county into downtown Everett, where the suspect crashed into and killed a nurse. The officer was given a one-day suspension for policy violations.
When the crash happened, the Bothell Police Department had stricter pursuit policies in the works but not yet enacted. It was that case that led to last week’s $3 million settlement.
One person killed in 2013 was a drunken driver who was being pursued by sheriff’s deputies on U.S. 2 near Gold Bar. Another fatal chase happened that year in Lake Stevens, when a fleeing suspect crashed, killing his passenger.
The Lake Stevens department last year adopted stricter pursuit policies, Police Chief Dan Lorentzen said. They looked at recent pursuits in the growing city, where many roads have low speed limits, pedestrian traffic and no shoulders or sidewalks.
“I was not comfortable with the way that pursuits were being managed,” Lorentzen said.
When reviewing the chases, police administrators had to ask themselves: “Yes, they were within policy, but was it good public policy?” Lorentzen said.
Under the new rules in Lake Stevens, officers only are allowed to give chase if they believe the driver poses a significant threat of serious injury or death to others, and those risks are sufficient to outweigh safety concerns. Pursuits should be reserved for heinous, violent crimes, not for stolen cars, Lorentzen said.
“Did it create some backlash in the organization? Yes, but the way we were pursuing, I needed to make sure the safety of the public was put first,” Lorentzen said.
In addition, every Lake Stevens police officer in 2016 will complete a class on decision-making during pursuits. The class is paid for by the city’s insurance pool.
Around the county, pursuit policies try to account for the emotion and adrenaline that comes with a chase. That’s why sheriff’s office supervisors are given increased responsibility for managing chases, Trenary said.
The sheriff also has created a Driving Review Board. The board will start meeting in February to examine every crash and pursuit involving sheriff’s employees and county cars, including civilians who get in fender-benders on-the-job.
The move comes after Trenary observed an uptick in patrol car crashes and inconsistencies in the discipline leveled, he said. The new board will determine whether policies were followed, make discipline recommendations and identify training gaps. The board is expected to look at seven to 10 incidents a month.
The findings are supposed to be “timely and swift,” Trenary said, though he recognizes that internal investigations often are delayed during litigation or if a criminal case is under way. Those delays can stretch months or even years. Lynnwood police still haven’t done an internal review of their fatal pursuit from 2013, when officers chased a woman with a misdemeanor warrant into Mountlake Terrace.
When the review board meets, every deputy involved in a pursuit, along with his or her direct supervisor — usually a sergeant — will be asked to talk about their decisions. Robertson, the sergeant assigned to Granite Falls, describes it as “joint accountability.”
“It’s important that we look at the impact we’re having on our community and that we needed to make a change,” he said. “This is a pretty dramatic change.”
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