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Police pursuit debate in WA Legislature involves dueling data sets

caption: This Washington State Patrol dashcam video from April 2022 captures a white BMW with a stolen license plate failing to stop for a trooper. in Olympia The driver took off at a high rate of speed, but the trooper didn't give chase.
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This Washington State Patrol dashcam video from April 2022 captures a white BMW with a stolen license plate failing to stop for a trooper. in Olympia The driver took off at a high rate of speed, but the trooper didn't give chase.
Washington State Patrol

The Washington state Legislature is debating changes to a law restricting pursuits by police vehicles. But the debate has become a war of words — and numbers.

Advocates say the current law has led to fewer deaths. Critics say other lives may have been lost as a result of those constraints.

Two years ago, Washington enacted what’s believed to be the nation’s strongest restrictions on vehicle pursuits by police. The new law narrows the offenses for when pursuits are allowed, and requires a high bar — “probable cause” that the person has committed a sexual or violent crime, or reasonable suspicion of a DUI. This year, law enforcement officials and some mayors are pressing legislators to revise that standard. They say people are routinely flouting orders to stop.

“Since the law changed, we’ve had over seven patrol cars that were rammed by suspects when attempting to flee a lawful police stop,” Marysville Police Chief Erik Scairpon said.

RELATED: See ya! Washington police say drivers aren’t stopping for them; cite pursuit restrictions

Scairpon wants the Legislature to give police more discretion on vehicle pursuits. He said he doesn’t consider it a rollback of recent reforms, because another new state law passed in 2021 (HB 1310) would remain in place. It says police have the duty to preserve and protect human life.

“If we change the law in our state, law enforcement is still held to that high standard of ‘duty of care,’ as well as the other accountability measures that our state Legislature has put in place to provide for good public trust and legitimacy in Washington state," Scairpon said.

But supporters of the new restrictions said there were good reasons to enact them two years ago.

Andrea Caupain Sanderson, a nonprofit leader and founder of the BIPOC ED Coalition, testified before the House Community Safety Committee last week.

“Pursuits are widely known to be inherently dangerous, and put innocent people at risk, and they’re the exact opposite of de-escalation,” she said.

At the same hearing, Amber Goldade of Tacoma told legislators she blames the new law for the death of her 12-year-old daughter, Immaculee, who was struck by a man driving a stolen truck in January 2022. Goldade said if not for the current law, the man might have been detained the week before.

“The police had stopped him, but he fled in a stolen vehicle and the police could only watch,” she said.

Martina Morris, a professor emerita of statistics at the University of Washington and member of the Washington Coalition for Police Accountability, said she wanted to acknowledge Goldade’s painful loss, but it doesn’t change her support for maintaining current restrictions.

“Yes, it’s possible that a police pursuit might have caught this person,” Morris said. “But we don’t have good evidence that that happens very often."

She said a Pierce County audit suggests that many police vehicle pursuits are initiated over low-level offenses and don’t actually end in an arrest.

Morris also said her analysis of public data suggests fewer people died during police pursuits in the year since the law passed.

“The data that we do have suggests that the law is working, that the number of fatalities from these pursuits is going down," she said. "Leave that in place and let’s see.”

Her findings have become a flash point in the debate. Seattle University criminal justice professor Matthew Hickman submitted a letter to legislators in which he said Morris’ data “are inadequate and the analysis insufficient to draw valid and reliable conclusions.”

Another expert, Bob Scales with the firm Police Strategies, requested numbers from the Washington Traffic Safety Commission that he said refute Morris’ findings. They indicate fewer fatalities in the years before the law took effect on July 25, 2021, and little change afterwards. Scales said he’s dismayed that legislators haven't examined this other data.

“If the Legislature looks at the Traffic Safety Commission data and says, 'This is a lot of hooey and Martina has better numbers and here’s why,' that’s fine, if that’s their decision," he said. "But to ignore it, and to claim Martina’s data is something that it’s not, I think is wrong and it’s bad policy.”

Supporters of the current pursuit restrictions have said they simply echo what some cities already had in place.

But the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs said that while some cities did have their own, more stringent rules, none appear to have required officers to have “probable cause” for a crime in order to initiate a pursuit.

The House Community Safety Committee heard testimony on a proposal (HB 1363) to give local agencies more discretion in police pursuits. However, the chair of the Senate Law and Justice Committee, Manka Dhingra (D-Redmond), has said she does not plan to bring that proposal up for a vote. Her committee has approved a proposal for a work group to study best practices on police pursuits (SB 5533).

RELATED: Inslee signs law returning some powers to Washington police; opponents call it a rollback

Update 2/16/2023: Fife Police Chief Pete Fisher confirms to KUOW that his department did indeed require “probable cause” of specific violent offenses for police vehicle pursuits in 2020, before it was required under state law, and has continued to restrict pursuits beyond the requirements of state law, because of the very congested nature of his city.

Fisher said Fife has intense traffic congestion from semi-trucks, coexisting with numerous hotels and pedestrians. He said, “We want to make sure that the people we are going to pursue are creating that risk that outweighs the danger created by the pursuit itself. So we’re pretty discerning about how we do that here in Fife.” He said even if the “probable cause” threshold for pursuits is repealed by legislators at some point, he will maintain it in Fife “just because of how unique our community is.”

But Fisher said he does not support existing state law because local governments should have more discretion to adopt their own restrictions. He said, “We have certainly seen the negative impact these laws have had. I agree with chiefs and sheriffs that the legislature needs to look at changing the law back.” He added, “I think what the law has done, what we’ve seen not only here in Fife but regionally, is just an understanding that police can’t pursue, so people aren’t stopping.”

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