Thurston County Sheriff’s Office (TCSO) deputies have increasingly engaged in more and more vehicle pursuits, with statistics showing there have been 12 percent more pursuits this year than the same time last year.
There’s no one specific cause for this, said TCSO Lt. Ray Brady, but typically a person suspected of fleeing from deputies is also wanted on an outstanding warrant or for allegations of other crimes.
Between January and September, there were 46 vehicle pursuits in the sheriff’s office’s jurisdiction. During that same time frame last year, there were 41. Going farther back in time, the number grows smaller: 34 in 2018, 30 in 2017 and 27 in 2016 (all during the same January through September timeframe).
Thurston County Sheriff John Snaza first shared this information earlier this month, when he told the county’s board of commissioners about challenges his department has experienced so far this year. Snaza, like Brady, could not pinpoint an exact cause for the increase.
A person arrested after a chase is most often charged with eluding a pursuing police vehicle, which is a class C felony, the least severe felony classification. There are currently booking restrictions at the Thurston County Jail to limit inmates’ potential exposure to COVID-19, and only certain serious offenses are resulting in jail time for people awaiting trial. Eluding is one of those offenses, said Brady, because a vehicle chase is a public danger.
“[Pursuits] can become very dangerous, very quickly,” said Brady.
Many pursuits end because the pursuing deputy (or the supervisor) calls off the chase, and allows the fleeing vehicle to get away. This happens when the chase becomes too dangerous, Brady said.
Sometimes, for instance, a fleeing car will speed down the wrong side of the road.
If a chase lasts long enough, responding officers will try to anticipate the fleeing vehicle’s route, and set up spike strips along the roadway to blow the car’s tires. These strips, which can be assembled to stretch across the entire roadway, are covered in sharp metal spikes. All deputies carry spike strips in their vehicle.
“Spike strip deployment can be extremely dangerous. … You’re out of your vehicle, the other vehicle is going by you at potentially 100 miles per hour,” said Brady.
On March 24, Washington State Patrol Trooper Justin Schaffer was killed in Chehalis after being struck by a car while he was deploying spike strips.
Sometimes, a deputy will strike the fleeing vehicle with their patrol vehicle, causing the fleeing vehicle to spin out. Deputies’ cars are outfitted with thick bumpers designed to spin out other cars as safely as possible. Brady said it’s not uncommon for a deputy’s vehicle to get a few dents during a chase.
It’s also common for a chase to stop after the fleeing vehicle hits another car, or when it goes off the road while trying to negotiate a sharp turn.
With the number of chases increasing, there’s more conversation among patrol deputies and their supervisors about the dangers posed by vehicle chases, Brady said. They talk about knowing when to make the call that a chase has become too dangerous to continue — like if it’s traveling at high speeds through a heavily populated area. It’s not uncommon for officers to identify a driver during a chase, let them go and arrest them later.
Deputies do have driving training every year, Brady said, during which they perform various pursuit techniques in a controlled environment.