Rantz: Seattle Police Department walks back order to let DUI suspects flee in stolen cars

Jan 18, 2023, 10:55 AM | Updated: 11:33 am
After a rash of incidents where DUI suspects bolted and amid considerable internal pressure, the SPD has overwritten a policy that prevented them from pursing suspects. (KIRO 7)
(KIRO 7)

A Seattle Police Department policy forced officers to allow DUI suspects to flee, even when they’re in stolen cars. And if a DUI suspect in a vehicle refused to comply, officers were told to leave the scene.

After a rash of incidents where DUI suspects bolted and amid considerable internal pressure, the SPD has walked the directive back. But it’s causing even more confusion for officers. The police union says the changes may lead to more unnecessary officer disciplinary complaints and hearings.

The mandate, which originated from the North Precinct on Sept. 29, 2022, was a draft policy. But it was being followed by officers across the city, with officers explaining to the Jason Rantz Show on KTTH that they were explicitly told to follow the guidance. Instead of addressing the confusion over the policy in September, the department waited over three months, which further legitimated the draft policy.

The clarified vehicular technique rules

Officers received an email on January 13 labeled “approved by Chief Diaz.” An SPD spokesperson said they issued this email memo as a clarification, but said it’s “not a new policy.” But it did rescind much of what was in the draft policy.

“Blocking” a suspect vehicle with a patrol vehicle can now be used when an officer believes it is an appropriate tactic. Officers may now use vehicle-to-vehicle contact (or pinning/pinching) when the suspect in the car “poses a public safety threat because of observed extreme and unsafe behavior” or if there is “reasonable suspicion that the suspect vehicle poses an immediate threat of death or serious physical injury to another.”

Officers may not ram a suspect vehicle unless an “exigent” circumstance presents itself, “all other reasonable means to stop the vehicle have failed or were not available,” and officers believe the suspect “poses an imminent threat of serious physical injury or death to another.”

Patrol officers may not use the Pursuit Intervention Technique (PIT) unless they have specialized training and the suspect either “poses a public safety threat” or there is “reasonable belief” that he does. A PIT is a “forced rotational stop” of a suspect fleeing a pursuit. How often this technique would ever be used is questionable. SPD, as a policy, prohibits vehicular pursuits and a PIT can only be used when a suspect is driving away.

No matter the technique, officers are instructed to “consider the safety risk to officers, the public, and the occupants of the vehicle.” And vehicular pursuits are still banned, meaning these clarifications are meant as tactics officers can take to try to stop the suspect from fleeing in the first place.

“Policy clarifications are frequently issued when legislative changes or other legal rulings impact existing department procedures. There are currently state-level discussions that may further impact these types of vehicle tactics and further clarification may be needed. The recent clarifications were made in coordination with the OPA [Office of Police Accountability] and OIG [Office of Inspector General],” an SPD spokesperson emailed the Jason Rantz Show on KTTH.

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Police union and SPD react

Some officers were livid with the original memo. They say there have been consistent cases of DUI suspects choosing to ignore officers. And the thought of letting a man in a running car, clearly passed out from drug use, was disturbing. Those suspects posed a clear threat. But now they can intervene.

Some police speaking to the Jason Rantz Show on KTTH expressed their support of this new policy, though there was a worry echoed by Officer Mike Solan, president of the Seattle Police Officer’s Guild (SPOG). The policy clarification puts the decision on the officer’s shoulders rather than clearly explain what the department expectation is. In a city that wasn’t driven by anti-police animus, this wouldn’t be a concern. But this is Seattle.

“The end is going to be every decision is going to be based upon the officer at the scene,” Solan explained exclusively to the Jason Rantz Show on KTTH. “And then, therefore, if they make a judgment call blocking said person using their vehicle, well, I think the scrutiny is going to be overwhelming. And those [officers] can find themselves into perhaps significant discipline, based upon an interpretation of how the incident goes, and how it plays out on body-worn video. So it doesn’t give me the warm and fuzzy to feel as if they’re going to be supported when they make these decisions to try to meet community concerns.”

Moreover, the policy clarification is happening with the backdrop of pursuits being banned.

“More people are now as confused as ever,” Solan explained exclusively to the Jason Rantz Show on KTTH. “Cops just want to be able to do our jobs. And we understand that the backdrop of the reform bills where police are basically forbidden to pursue these suspects outside of a major felony. But when you have somebody that’s passed out, which is more often than not, particularly in the city of Seattle, and when those people come to, when the police are present, more often than not, they hit the gas, and they try to flee the area. And so cops are left, you know, dealing with 911 calls where community is reporting this hazard. And when police get there, clearly they want to investigate the suspicious circumstances. But then, more often than not, they’re left with more confusion as terms of command and what the orders are given. It’s quite unclear.”

Copy of memo acquired by The Jason Rantz Show

Copy of memo acquired by The Jason Rantz Show

Copy of memo acquired by The Jason Rantz Show

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Rantz: Seattle Police Department walks back order to let DUI suspects flee in stolen cars