Debate heats up over research data used to craft current WA police pursuit law

The debate surrounding the possible change of Washington's police pursuit law and the data lawmakers are using to make those decisions remains contentious in Olympia.  

At the latest hearing in Olympia, former King County Deputy Prosecutor Bob Scales submitted written testimony telling lawmakers that he believes the data they've been using on police pursuit deaths to make that policy is not accurate.  

On Tuesday, the person who helped to put together that data responded to the pushback.

"Our thought in this, I believe, is that rolling back pursuit protections will not make us safer," said Dr. Martina Morris. 

Earlier this week, Morris testified before a House committee that's considering a new bill which would loosen the current rules that restrict police pursuits. House Bill 1363 wouldn't be a return to the old rules entirely, but it calls for extra training to qualify officers to initiate pursuits.  

The bill focuses on extra communication with local law enforcement during the chase to keep bystanders out of harm's way and extra emphasis on ending the pursuit by stopping the suspect as soon as possible.  

RELATED: Effort to roll back changes to police pursuit laws in Washington state

Morris testified that the current restrictions have saved lives.  

"We have evidence that the law is working to improve the public safety issue that it was established for. The statewide number of fatalities from active pursuits has dropped by over 70% in the last year and a half that’s a lot," said Morris. 

Police and other law enforcement officials have complained that the police pursuit law has prohibited them from arresting suspects, and during an era of increasing crime, critics are taking a hard look at those numbers. 

Scales submitted a letter to the legislature Tuesday, questioning the data.

"My only interest in this was making sure the legislature was using accurate data," said Scales.  

He is the CEO of Police Strategies LLC, a former King County Deputy Prosecutor and Special Assistant US Attorney for the Western District of Washington. 

Scales sent a letter to the legislature that read, "Dr. Morris inflated the overall fatality numbers by 28%. Dr. Morris claimed that between 2017 and 2021, there were 13 deaths of passengers and pedestrians that were caused by police pursuits. In fact, there were only three deaths involving passengers and pedestrians." 

"Based on official WTSC (Washington Traffic Safety Commission) traffic fatality data, there is no evidence to support Dr. Morris’ claim that HB 1054 reduced pursuit-related fatalities by 73%. I urge the state legislature to ignore unreliable crowd-sourced data, disregard the analysis presented by Dr. Morris and focus instead on official traffic fatality statistics from the WTSC," said Scales. 

Scales says the data Morris is using was sourced from news reports and social platforms and a website showcasing that data had changed recently, which he said was questionable. 

"She changed a lot on her website except for her findings and conclusion: they stayed the same. So she added over 60 records on her database, online. So originally, it was about 28 and now it’s 88," said Morris.   

FOX 13 used the Wayback Machine website archive to look at changes to the site online. Just a few days ago it read, "Since the law change in 2021, the number of people killed during pursuits has dropped by 73%."

It has since been changed to read, "Since the law change in 2021, the number of people killed during pursuits has dropped by 67%."

A bar graph had also changed to include different years of study and additional data-explainers were also added on why the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) data undercounted pursuit fatalities and why the Fatal Encounters Project is a good source of data. 

"She also added a criticism of the National Highway Traffic Safety Commission Data and the Washington Traffic Safety Commission data, and she explained why that data is no good and that data is better," said Scales.   

Scales said that specifically, Sen. Manka Dhingra and Rep. Roger Goodman had previously cited Dr. Morris' data as an indication that restrictions on pursuits were saving lives.  

When asked for comment, Dhingra's office sent a letter from Martina Morris, responding to Scales claims.  

It read, "He submitted testimony to you claiming that the data I am using to describe the fatalities from pursuits have ‘inflated the numbers’ of people killed during active police pursuits here in Washington. This is not correct." 

"Every person I have included in my analysis is backed by evidence, and that evidence is in my report, viewable online, publicly downloadable, for anyone who wants to dig deeper. My report follows the principles of transparent reproducible research; it includes both the data and the code needed to reproduce the results. It would be helpful if Mr. Scales shared with us which five people from this publicly available list he believes are incorrectly identified." 

"The more likely explanation for the discrepancy he reports is that the data from the Washington State Traffic Safety Commission (WTSC) undercount these pursuit fatalities." 

Scales says he's writing a letter in response to Morris' letter to send to lawmakers. FOX 13 reached out to Morris for an interview or for comment Friday afternoon and are waiting to hear back.  


Bill introduced to amend Washington's police pursuit laws unlikely to pass

Washington lawmakers introduced another bill with bipartisan support that would allow police officers to pursue criminals, but the bill is not scheduled to be heard in the Senate.