Auburn PD prepares for new pursuit policies

When Initiative 2113, a law approved this spring by Washington’s Legislature, goes into effect on June 6, it will once again allow the chief or police administrators to make the determinations in their own jurisdictions.

In 2023, the Auburn Police Department registered a 283-percent increase over 2022 in the number of police vehicle pursuits.

A jaw-dropping number to be sure.

But as Police Chief Mark Caillier and Police Commander Todd Byers informed the Auburn City Council on April 22 during a work session that focused on the APD’s Annual Report, there’s a good explanation for the spike.

In 2021, state lawmakers, responding to public concerns over public safety, ruled that police in Washington state could start a car chase only when they had probable cause to believe the fleeing person or persons had committed a violent offense. Chases for lower-level crimes, such as property and car theft, were not allowed.

The change proved controversial. While police agencies chafed at the limits, arguing that the limits tied their hands, people who favored them argued that the pursuits too often hurt or killed civilians and endangered the lives of officers.

“We only had six (pursuits) in 2022 — three in February and three in October — because of the legislative change,” Byers said.

But in late 2022 and early 2023, state lawmakers eased some of the restrictions, moving from “probable cause” to “reasonable suspicion.” As a result, the number of APD pursuits shot up.

And when Initiative 2113, a law approved this spring by Washington’s Legislature, goes into effect on June 6, it will once again allow the chief or police administrators to make the determinations in their own jurisdictions, Byers said, “based upon the needs of the community, the performance of the officers, and the chief or chief administrator’s wishes as to what our pursuit policy is going to be.

“That gives us a chance to live up to the expectations of the community, whereas before that was kind of taken out of the hands of the administrators of those respective departments,” Byers said.

Most of the suspects pursued in 2023, Byers said, were for felony crimes other than being in a stolen vehicle, “because occupying and driving a stolen vehicle was not something we would pursue for. Also, 29 percent of the pursuits were related to criminal traffic, the most prevalent being DUIs.”

Most of the pursuits occur between 8 p.m. and 4 a.m., with the span of time between 10 p.m. and 2 a.m. after the bars close, registering the highest numbers, Byers said.

Byers also reported an increase in the average pursuit distance. Whereas in 2022, the six recorded pursuits averaged two-thirds of a mile, he said, in 2023 the figure increased to 1.93 miles.

Councilwoman Kate Baldwin wanted to know what will happen Auburn after June 6, when I-2113 becomes law.

“Will we see any shift … in how the city will handle pursuits, given that it opens the door for us to set policy?” Baldwin inquired.

“It will modify our pursuit language,” Chief Caillier answered. “It hasn’t been determined yet how far we’ll go, but the way the law change works is it allows basic pursuits for any violation of the law. We have been more restrictive in the past, when we put a lot of emphasis on the need to apprehend the violator versus the risk to the public.

“We’ll probably go back to something similar to what we had prior to the legislative changes, where it’s incumbent on the officers and the administrators to determine … the reason why (an officer) is initiating a pursuit in the first place, and a whole lot of factors will come into play, like whether that pursuit is terminated immediately or it’s allowed to continue a short distance,” Caillier added.

Other highlights of the report:

The APD recorded just over 68,000 incidents in 2023, down about 1,000 from previous years. That’s in step with a significant decrease that began in 2019, when the number of incidents totaled 86,000. Caillier attributed the drop to the department’s increased online reporting over computer-aided dispatch or CAD.

The average response times for the highest priority calls decreased in 2023, although they increased for every other category, Caillier said.

“A lot of that is due to staffing levels at the police department, but we try to keep Priority 1 as close to four minutes as possible. What happens is that with our staffing we have on the street, they will divert from a call they are on to either take primary or assist on a higher priority call as needed,” Caillier said.

When the APD assigns felony cases out of those 68,000 calls that came in, just under 5,000 total felony cases were assigned to the detective units. And when those figures were broken down by each unit, the major crime unit that handles homicides, robberies, etc. investigated over 1,300 incidents. The most active unit was property crimes, which handled just over 3,300 calls in 2023, with drug investigations, vice and gang-related activity still categorized under property crimes.

The number of homicides dropped from 2022’s 13 to eight in 2023, though there was a fairly high number of robberies committed, with a number of robbery crews operating in South King County and in Pierce County.

Overall, burglaries and fraud and forgery dropped slightly, while thefts from vehicles continues to drop, Caillier said. Vehicle thefts increased once more to about 1,500.

“One explanation for why (the numbers of thefts from vehicles) are going so low is that now they’re taking the whole vehicle,” Caillier said.