Police pursuit bill has Washington Democrats at odds

The saga of police pursuit bills in the Washington State Legislature took a turn on Tuesday.

Earlier this week, Senator Manka Dhingra doubled-down on previous comments that she would block House Bill 1363, a bipartisan bill that would roll back a 2021 law that made it more difficult for police to greenlight high-speed chases.

Sen. Dhingra pointed to research released by Dr. Martina Morris—a retired professor at the University of Washington—which showed that the number of deaths linked to police pursuits in Washington dropped 73%, from 11 in the year and a half before the change, to just three since.

Rep. Alicia Rule, a fellow Democrat, is pushing for that data to be thrown out. Rule commissioned a Seattle University researcher to review the data published by Morris, which led to a scathing review.

"If this analysis was submitted for peer-review, it would be summarily rejected as it does not satisfy threshold criteria for quantitative scientific work," wrote Dr. Matthew Hickman. "The analysis should be disregarded in its entirety."

Dr. Morris’ research linked back to news coverage of police pursuits that ended in deaths. That included a deadly motorcycle crash that killed two people, though the article noted that police called off a chase.

In 2018, FOX 13 News interviewed then-public information officer Ed Troyer who reported the motorcycle took off at a speed exceeding 100 mph, which led them to call off the pursuit. The News Tribune article linked in the research noted the same thing, writing: "The motorcycle sped away, and the deputy opted not to pursue it, Pierce County Sheriff’s spokesman Ed Troyer said."

Reached via email, Dr. Morris told FOX 13 that "news reports were inconsistent as to whether the pursuit was ‘called off.’"

"In summary, no one is disputing that fewer people have been killed since the legislature enacted the pursuit reform law," wrote Morris.

As for Sen. Dhingra, she noted that the questions about data proved her point. A spokesperson telling FOX 13 by email that "Prof. Hickman makes a great point that legislators have been raising all along – we need much better data."

According to the spokesperson, without better data, they’re forced to rely on what they do know. Re-iterating that a separate bill that would enable a Criminal Justice Training Commission to study the issue over time will be debated.

Beyond the data, the core of the issue is a question about when police should be allowed to pursue individuals.

The 2021 changed the threshold for a chase from "reasonable suspicion" to "probable cause." The legal terminology may sound similar, but the difference has been apparent in recent months.

Advocates who want to reverse course and return to "reasonable suspicion" point to rising car theft numbers. Those who want to stay the course note fewer police pursuits has translated to fewer deaths.

"We need to fix this," said Steve Strachan, head of the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs. "The frustration right now is this study being cited, and it’s being cited by a lot of advocacy groups."

RELATED: One Washington lawmaker has the key to block discussions on police pursuits, and she is wielding that power

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Asked if there’s the possibility that lives are being saved, or whether the study conducted by Dr. Morris may have had merit, Strachan said no one wants to see people put into dangerous situation.

"Everyone agrees on that, but we also need the prospect or possibility of law enforcement engaging in pursuit to shift criminals acting with impunity," said Strachan.