By Mike De Felice
Kitsap Daily News
PORT ORCHARD — When Port Orchard police were called to Mile Hill Drive parking lot Wednesday morning regarding a stolen vehicle that was occupied by the alleged car thief, officers hoped they would be able to make a quick and easy arrest. That was not going to be the case.
At 9:51 a.m., officers arrived at the parking lot fronting the Goodwill store in Port Orchard. They spotted the occupied parked stolen vehicle and attempted to block it in with their police cruisers. The maneuver, however, was met with heavy resistance. Once hemmed in, the suspect driver proceeded to ram the two police cars and two other parked vehicles and escaped, according to authorities.
“We had a report of a stolen vehicle. Three of our officers went up there and attempted to pin it in, since we know we cannot chase or pursue vehicles that are stolen. He rammed our cars and two others, and got away,” Port Orchard Police Chief Matt Brown said.
The alleged car thief remains at large as of Friday afternoon, police said.
“We have identified him and are actively searching for him. He is not in custody, but we don’t believe there is a risk to the public,” Brown said.
The stolen vehicle was later recovered in another county. There were no reported injuries as a result of the parking lot episode, Brown noted.
“I’m impressed with the restraint our officers showed. You have an incredibly dynamic and rapidly evolving incident where they are in their cars and being rammed, and there’s smoke, and they made some very wise, prudent and legal decisions in the middle of a difficult circumstance,” he said.
The incident was captured on video by an unidentified citizen and has been posted on the streaming service Streamable. POPD said the bystander video can be viewed at: https://streamable.com/puxkoj
Wednesday’s incident highlights a problem local enforcement and other police departments across the state say have been experiencing since the passage of recent police reform measures. Officers are unable to conduct a high-speed pursuit of a suspect unless the person has committed a violent crime, Brown reported.
“Legislation does not allow us to chase for property crimes like possession of a stolen vehicle,” the chief said.
Even the act of ramming the police vehicles did not rise to a serious enough felony assault that allowed the on-scene officers to chase the suspect, Brown said.
“A vehicle would have to be used intentionally as a deadly weapon. That means driving at an officer or using the vehicle as a weapon as opposed to trying to move police vehicles out of the way.”
Port Orchard, like other cities across the state, has been hit with a dramatic increase in motor vehicle thefts. Since late summer, the city had an average of 21 cars stolen monthly, Brown noted. This is an increase from a prior average of between four and five motor vehicle thefts a month prior to the enactment of police reforms in Olympia.
Asked why the city is experiencing an increase in criminal behavior, the police chief said, “I think that the changes to the way law enforcement can function certainly has emboldened the criminal element to be more brazen in what they do.”
He also believes other factors have contributed to the rise in misconduct.
“There are a lot of different reasons. I think there has been an overall breakdown in civil order. I think the pandemic is affecting people. There is that constant pressure and stress that is affecting people’s mental health and behavioral health. And I think, just in general, as divided as the country has become, for a number of reasons, we have become just less kind and courteous to each other,” he said.
Brown hopes new legislation being considered to expand instances in which police can pursue suspects will be passed.