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To Protect and, Well, Never Mind: Washington State Police Reform Measures Make Life Easier for Criminals

AP Photo/Nick Wass

“If no one’s going to work on it, we’re just going to let it go.”

So announced an officer in a police helicopter on Sept. 1 as he watched a stolen car disappear into the distance on a Washington state highway. The car, a Lexus SUV, had not merely been stolen; it had been taken in a carjacking the previous day when a man threatened the woman owner with a gun and ordered her from the car.

The Lexus was equipped with a Lojack device, and the day after the carjacking deputies in a King County Sheriff helicopter picked up the signal and found the car as it drove on city streets in Auburn, a city of 78,000 between Seattle and Tacoma. Passengers were seen exiting the Lexus in a parking lot before it once again took to the streets, now being followed by police on the ground as well as in the helicopter.

In a sane world, this scenario would have ended with the arrest of the driver and the recovery of the crime victim’s car, but this was Washington state, where a special kind of insanity has gripped lawmakers and led them to believe all bad things can be legislated away.

Last month in this space I wrote about police reform legislation in Washington state, one of the effects of which was to require police to have probable cause to arrest a driver before engaging in a vehicle chase. In the matter of the carjacked Lexus, because a day had passed since the car was taken, the driver may not have been the person who took it. Lacking the probable cause now required to pursue, the officers watched the Lexus cruise off unmolested.

This is fine with Rep. Jesse Johnson, a Democrat (if you hadn’t guessed), who sponsored the police reform measures. “I do think the course of action taken by the Auburn Police Department was probably the right course of action based on the law,” Johnson said. He pointed out that it was 3:30 in the afternoon and that school had just ended for the day, making a pursuit potentially dangerous for children walking home. If anyone asked him why schoolchildren would be walking on the freeway where the Lexus was last seen, it wasn’t reported in the story.

The Lexus was recovered two days later by King County deputies, and we may presume it was parked and unoccupied at the time, so no arrests were made. So, the no-pursuits advocates would claim that with the car recovered and returned to its owner without a potentially dangerous chase, this was a satisfactory outcome. Which is true but for the fact that the armed carjacker is still roaming the area safe in the knowledge that if sufficient time elapses between his next carjacking and being detected by the police, he need not pull over when they attempt to stop him. He can simply drive off and abandon the car at his leisure, then go off and do it again, as often and for as long as he pleases, or until that glorious day when he chooses a victim who is himself armed and  the cycle is ended once and for all.

Yes, car chases can be dangerous and even deadly, but how safe is a society in which even armed robbers know the police are forbidden to chase them? Like most so-called police reform measures lately enacted, those now in effect in Washington simply make life easier for criminals.

“If no one’s going to work on it,” said the deputy, “we’re just going to let it go.” You may as well paint that on the side of Washington’s police cars, replacing “To protect and serve” or whichever outdated mottos one currently sees there. Is this really what the public wants?