The Washington state House of Representatives is reviewing the controversial House Bill (HB) 1363, which would repeal restrictions on police use of vehicular pursuits.
Under the current legal framework, as legislated by HB 1054 in 2021, law enforcement officers can engage in a pursuit in a limited set of circumstances, including if there is probable cause that a potential suspect has committed a serious violent or sexual offense, if the person poses an imminent threat to the safety of others or if there is a reasonable suspicion that the person is driving under the influence.
An officer is also required in most circumstances to get their supervisor’s approval before engaging in a high-speed chase.
These restrictions are among the toughest in the nation and are intended to minimize pursuits, which police accountability advocates argue are risky to the public and suspects. However, Washington Republicans and some Democrats argue that these limits are too stringent; HB 1363 would remove the requirement for supervisory approval and relax the legal bar for most chases from probable cause to reasonable suspicion.
The main sponsor, Rep. Alicia Rule (D-Bellingham), has argued that the current law allows criminals “a free pass” and does not allow individual law enforcement agencies the flexibility of setting their own, less restrictive limits on police pursuits. Rule did not respond to a request for comment by press time.
Some crimes, such as minor traffic offenses or vehicle thefts, do not fall under the rubric of an acceptable justification for a police pursuit under the current law. This has frustrated some police lobbyist groups that support HB 1363, such as the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs (WASPC). WASPC argued that pursuit restrictions have contributed to an increase in vehicle thefts. The organization also asserted that drivers are refusing to stop for police as a result of the law.
However, proponents of the restrictions, such as the Washington Coalition for Police Accountability (WCPA), said that police chases are a dangerous tactic that should be reserved only for the most serious circumstances. The organization has come out in strong opposition to HB 1363, defending the current restrictions, which it advocated for back in 2021.
“Police know that this is an inherently dangerous tactic,” said Leslie Cushman, a member of WCPA. “It’s a best practice from police professionals to limit its use, and so the statewide policy just put that in place in order to reserve [police pursuits] for the most serious crimes.”
At the heart of the debate is a dispute over data and whether empirical evidence supports the current law. Real Change previously reported that retired University of Washington statistics and sociology professor Martina Morris had compiled figures showing that there was a decline in deaths related to police pursuits in the time periods before and after the passage of HB 1054. Morris, who is a member of WCPA and the police accountability group Next Steps Washington, attracted a lot of criticism about the use of the data set she assembled.
Due to this, she asked for an independent review of her website and revised the numbers to account for an attempted stop that was erroneously coded as a police pursuit. According to the revised data set, three people in Washington state have been killed due to a police pursuit since the restrictions were implemented, compared to nine people in a similar time period before the reforms. This marks a two-thirds decline in fatalities.
Morris admitted that there were limitations to this specific data set and that more information was needed, in general. She argued that law enforcement agencies need to share their data on police pursuits so that researchers can better evaluate the results of the police pursuit restrictions.
Among the people who have cited Morris’ data is Washington state Sen. Manka Dhingra, the chair of the Law and Justice committee.
In a Jan. 23 press conference, Dhingra said, “We have actually saved lives,” citing the sharp drop in deaths shown in Morris’ study. Dhingra also concurred with Morris that more data collection needed to be done.
The senate companion bill to HB 1363 has not been scheduled for a hearing in the Law and Justice committee, effectively killing it.
One of the criticisms to Morris’ study came from Seattle University criminal justice professor and department chair Matthew Hickman. In a Jan. 22 letter to Rule, he argued the study lacked “methodological rigor” and that, if it was submitted for peer review, it wouldn’t be published.
“I understand and applaud the desire of Legislators to make data-informed decisions about law and public policy,” Hickman wrote. “In this case, however, the data are inadequate and the analysis insufficient to draw valid and reliable conclusions.”
Another critic, police consultant Bob Scales, said that Morris shouldn’t have relied on two journalist-led databases, the Fatal Encounters Project and Washington Post Police Shootings Database. Scales instead argued that the Washington Traffic Safety Commission (WTSC), whose reported police pursuit fatality figures are lower, should have been used instead.
“The Washington Post and Fatal Encounters, they’re just doing Google searches,” Scales said. “And so whatever the media decides to report in a news story about a pursuit for traffic accident or fatality is what they will find. It is not an official source of data.”
Scales did not explain why the WTSC figures were superior to the journalist-led databases other than that they were collected by an official government body.
Morris dismissed this argument, saying that studies by University of South Carolina professor Geoffrey Alpert have shown that traffic safety data routinely undercounts police pursuit deaths.
“They clearly undercount police pursuits in this data set, which then makes it look a lot like the other data sets that we’re aware of that are supposed to record fatalities from police, that have been shown repeatedly over the last 10 years, in at least four studies that I know of, to undercount the people killed by police by 50 percent,” Morris said. “So that’s why I don’t use those data.”
Morris also said that the limited reports that do exist on police pursuits in Washington indicate that they are ineffective and dangerous, citing a December 2022 Pierce County Council audit of police pursuits. In a data set ranging from January 2017 to July 2021, when the new restrictions were implemented, analysts found that only 65 percent of pursuits even ended in an arrest — meaning that 35 percent of the time, a deputy or supervisor judged the conditions of a pursuit were too dangerous to continue. For the Pierce County Sheriff’s Department (PCSD), roughly 11.5 percent of pursuits resulted in an injury, and 35 percent ended up in an accident. Traffic offenses and driver’s license suspensions were the most common reasons for a pursuit to be initiated, with aggravated assault making up only a fraction of the more common offenses.
Analysts also observed a 37.5 percent drop in the number of pursuits authorized by the PCSD since the reforms.
Another SU criminal justice professor, Carmen Rivera, concurred with Hickman’s assessment that the Morris study was not scientific.
“The research isn’t sound, unfortunately,” Rivera said. “The methodology is inadequate and would not gain peer review status. That’s because it’s called an ‘interrupted time series.’ She’s conflating a correlation with a causation, and that’s the problem there.”
However, Rivera said that Hickman’s critique focused only narrowly on Morris’ study and did not look more broadly at the existing research on police pursuits.
“I have right here, in front of me, pages of meta analyses and peer studies ... that all confirm and say: We need to reduce police pursuits. It’s essential to the culture, especially the culture we’re trying to shift in policing with reform,” she said.
One of the metastudies Rivera cited is a 2008 report by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, which reviewed 33 studies and found that there is no consensus on the benefits of police pursuits. While some studies argued that the amount of arrests versus the number of accidents made police pursuit worth it, others found that arrests often didn’t match the initial reason that an officer initiated a pursuit or that arrests have no positive effect on deterring crime in general, “questioning the overall benefits related to the arrests of suspects.”
Rivera also refuted some of the arguments made by proponents of HB 1363.
“People were driving drunk and driving away and not stopping for police before this legislation,” she said, “That didn’t just magically start happening with this legislation.”
Rivera said that she supports the police pursuit restrictions and argued that it is necessary to help shift the culture around policing to be less aggressive.
Like with Morris’ study, police lobbyists were making the same mistake of over-reading a very limited data set for causal relationships between the 2021 police pursuit law and traffic safety, Rivera said.
“I would say, coming out of the pandemic, there can be so many reasons why we’re seeing a heightened amount of traffic accidents or traffic fatalities,” Rivera said. “People are coming from being at home and on their devices, which are shown to be addictive, so what’s to say that people just aren’t on their phone more? What’s to say that the fatalities aren’t because people’s substance abuse from the pandemic is leading to their motor vehicle safety? There are so many different factors coming out of 2020 that we haven’t even touched on, because it’s only been two years and some odd months.”
For WCPA members such as Sonia Joseph, whose son was killed after a police pursuit, the restrictions are important to avoid more loss of life.
“We want to make sure that officers are using de-escalation whenever possible, and vehicle pursuits are the opposite of de-escalation,” Joseph said. “It’s important to myself that we continue to keep the policy as is, for the simple fact that it’s working. Lives are being saved, and it’s working as it was intended to.”
Update: This story has been changed to reflect Bob Scales' job title. The newspaper regrets the error.
Read more of the Feb. 15-21, 2023 issue.