Opinion: Police pursuit and public safety – who’s right?

Opinion: Police pursuit and public safety – who’s right? In her weekly column, Nancy Churchill discusses the legislature’s battle over police pursuit legislation passed in 2021 restricting officers from chasing most suspects.

In her weekly column, Nancy Churchill discusses the legislature’s battle over police pursuit legislation passed in 2021 restricting officers from chasing most suspects

Nancy Churchill
Dangerous Rhetoric

One of the hotly debated issues in this year’s legislative session is restoring the ability of police to engage in police pursuits. The pursuit legislation passed in 2021 restricted officers from chasing most suspects. That 2021 law requires officers to have “probable cause” that someone committed a crime in order to pursue them. The previous standard was “reasonable suspicion,” which is the standard in every other state.

Nancy Churchill
Nancy Churchill

Since the law went into effect, vehicle theft and other crimes have soared, as emboldened suspects realized that they could just speed away to escape arrest.

Last year, more than 45,000 cars were stolen statewide, a huge increase from previous years. The increase is directly related to the restrictions on police pursuits. Until the pursuit law is fixed, police say even seeing someone driving a stolen car is not enough to go after that person.

Democrats block a bipartisan compromise bill

Despite bipartisan support, Democrats in the House blocked any debate of HB 1613, which would have altered the law passed in 2021 that placed strict limitations on when law enforcement could pursue a suspect. Even Democrats who co-sponsored the legislation denied the motion that would have allowed a floor vote in the House. Over in the Senate, the chair of the Law and Justice Committee, Senator Manka Dhingra (D-Redmond) vowed to block SB 5352 from advancing to the floor out of her committee. At the last minute, other Democratic leaders invoked a procedural motion to allow them to pull SB 5352 out of Dhingra’s committee to the floor for a debate and vote.

In response to this unusual challenge from within her party, Sen. Dhingra dropped a “striker,” a type of amendment that replaces the original version of the bill heard in committee with brand new language. The striking amendment very narrowly defined the type of pursuits which would be allowed, and completely excluded suspicion of theft. Republicans offered amendments to improve the striker, which were blocked.

The straw man: protecting life or protecting property

Democrats argued that limiting police pursuits saves lives, and claimed their opponents only care about protecting property. However, they fail to point out that the data that they are using is flawed, and that better data is needed to support their claims of saving lives. In fact, Democratic Rep. Alicia Rule commissioned Dr. Matthew Hickman to review the flawed research being used to support the claims of improved safety. Dr. Hickman noted in his report that “In 2021 the Legislature passed SB 5259 which called for the collection of data on vehicle pursuits as part of a statewide law enforcement data collection program. Unfortunately, the Attorney General’s Office has rewritten the scope of work for that project and data on vehicle pursuits is no longer a part of the program.”

Why did the Attorney General decide NOT to collect the data needed to determine either a positive or negative impact of the pursuit law changes?

A false choice

In fact, during floor debate, Republican representatives held up several heartbreaking examples where lives were lost BECAUSE police could not pursue a suspect. In one tragic case, two children were killed by a drunk driver who fled from two different jurisdictions prior to the crash. Republicans are fighting for saving lives and improved public safety! The Democrat’s straw man argument is disingenuous.

Senate Republican Leader John Braun offered this statement on the vote on 5352, which narrowly passed with a 26-23 vote:

“Unfortunately, this bill as passed would only move our state a half-step in the right direction. Republicans proposed amendments that would again allow pursuits when there is reasonable suspicion of vehicle theft or reckless driving. The majority voted them down, with some claiming a choice must be made between protecting life or protecting property.

“That is a false choice. I believe our law-enforcement officers are trained and capable of making good choices regarding pursuits and should be trusted to do so. By rejecting our amendments, the majority showed its lack of trust in police.” You can watch Senator Braun’s floor remarks on SB 5352 on TVW. Watch for a public hearing.

The next action for SB 5352 will be a public hearing in the House Community Safety, Justice, & Reentry Committee. Please monitor the schedule for that committee, and be prepared to submit your concerns in public testimony. When you participate in the process of lawmaking, we all win.

You can follow this bill and the Community Safety, Justice, & Reentry Committee at leg.wa.gov.

Nancy Churchill is the state committeewoman for the Ferry County Republican Party. She may be reached at DangerousRhetoric@pm.me. The opinions expressed in Dangerous Rhetoric are her own.

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