Washington’s laws concerning police pursuits and the possession of hard drugs were both changed in 2021. The mistakes made then by the Democrat majority have turned these into the top two public safety debates now taking place in the Legislature — yet they are heading down very different paths.
We had no choice about changing the drug possession law. A month into our 2021 session, the state Supreme Court issued a ruling in Blake v. Washington that a person must “knowingly” possess drugs to be convicted of that crime. Just like that, possessing hard drugs like meth and heroin was no longer a felony. The legal leverage that had been saving lives by forcing people into treatment disappeared.
The change Republicans wanted was to simply add the word “knowingly” to the law. The change adopted by Democrats made it so the first and second drug possession offenses produce only a referral for treatment, with no incentive to participate. The third offense brings a charge, but it’s a misdemeanor. That doesn’t offer much leverage.
Fortunately, the law also requires us to revisit the issue in two years — meaning now, when there is plenty of data to show they got it wrong.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, fatal overdoses in Washington rose at a rate triple that of the national rate over the 12 months ending in May 2022. Overdoses are now the leading cause of death for Washingtonians under the age of 60. King County’s public health director recently blamed fatal overdoses for the shortage of space in the county morgue.
Four Senate bills to address the Blake situation were considered by the Senate Law and Justice Committee last week. One would make possession of hard drugs a felony again. One would go the other way, toward decriminalization. Two would make drug possession a gross misdemeanor. Senate Bill 5536 is one of those and the only bill of the four to receive committee approval on Feb. 9.
Because it would provide some leverage to encourage drug treatment, SB 5536 has promise. I’d like to see it come to the floor of the Senate chamber, where we can offer and debate amendments and really have a thoughtful and thorough discussion about an issue that has touched so many families with tragedy, including mine.
The change to the police pursuit law is different — that was purely the Democrats’ choice. Even so, as with the Blake legislation, everyone can see now how badly they got it wrong then.
Over the 18 months since pursuits were prohibited in all but a few situations, Washington has seen an unprecedented jump in crimes like auto theft. Just this week the Puget Sound Auto Theft Task Force reported an average of 81 vehicles are being stolen each day, between King and Pierce counties alone. Anyone who has lost a car to thieves knows it can be more life-changing than many other crimes.
Republicans believe there’s a simple fix: Restore the ability of officers to make a pursuit decision based on their training and experience, if they have reasonable suspicion that a certain vehicle is connected to a crime.
A bipartisan bill to do that, Senate Bill 5352, was filed on day four of this legislative session. Then Democrats pushed it aside in favor of a partisan bill which, like the 2021 legislation that changed the pursuit law in the first place, would be welcomed by criminals.
They support Senate Bill 5533, which would direct the state Criminal Justice Training Commission to collect data and develop a pursuit policy to serve as a model for governments to consider. The model policy would not be due to the Legislature until November 2024, meaning nothing would happen with it until at least the 2025 session.
It’s a mystery why Democrats appear to be moving toward a fix of the Blake mistake yet are moving away from a meaningful reform of the pursuit policy. They show no sense of urgency despite the shocking crime statistics and the pleas from law enforcement leaders. The drug possession bill that came out of committee is written in a way that allows room for us to make improvements on the floor of the Senate, but the police pursuit bill that came out of committee is not. It is too tightly focused to let us have a thoughtful debate about restoring the reasonable suspicion standard.
We must restore the ability of police to pursue criminals while also collecting data that might lead to a better policy down the road. When criminals have no fear of being apprehended, there may be nothing else to deter them from victimizing more Washingtonians. We must do better.
Sen. John Braun, of Centralia, serves the 20th Legislative District, which spans parts of four counties from Yelm to Vancouver. He became Senate Republican leader in 2020.