Washington state sheriffs, police chiefs shift gears for police pursuit bills

The Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs was not pleased to hear criticism of proposed bills that seek to rebalance the state’s controversial vehicle pursuit law.

Both the Washington state Senate and House have sponsored bills that seek to roll back House Bill 1054 that upped the threshold to probable cause. The initial bill was passed and signed into law in 2021.

Last week, Washington state Sen. Manka Dhingra, D-Redmond, explained her reluctance to move full speed ahead on legislation that would make it easier for police officers to engage in vehicular pursuits.

“I have not seen any data that correlates the legislation we passed [with an] increase with crime. In fact we have seen the increase in crime occur nationally regardless of laws that people have passed,” Dhingra said at a press conference.

She added that the problem the Senate was trying to solve with vehicle pursuits was the number of deaths unrelated to the offense “and we saw anywhere from 30% to 40% of individuals that were killed had nothing to do with the underlying offense.”

Dhingra referred to an analysis by Dr. Martina Morris, a retired professor of statistics and sociology at the University of Washington, that showed only three people have died in police pursuits in Washington in the year-and-a-half since House Bill 1054 was implemented – as opposed to 11 in the same time period before the law took effect, a reduction of 73%.

The Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs has been supportive of the House and Senate bills as a way to lift limits on law enforcement’s ability to pursue fleeing suspects. Dhingra’s explanation of her reluctance to move ahead on the vehicle pursuit legislation was not what the association wanted to hear.

“We are concerned by statements from [Dhingra] that they will refuse to consider the measure,” the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs said in a statement. “Refusing to allow a vote flouts public expectations and means elected leaders will be required to accept the status quo of emboldened criminals and lawlessness. It’s time to focus less on politics and more on victims and fix the problem.”

The association criticized the non-peer reviewed study that Dhingra was citing, but added that the change in the vehicle pursuit law has not been the only factor in increases in auto theft and violent crime since the law changed.

The release cited a review of the study by Seattle University criminology Prof. Matthew Hickman, who tore into Dr. Morris' work. He charged that her analysis "lacks sufficient methodological rigor to draw any valid and reliable conclusions" about pursuit fatalities following the new law. Because of the flaws in the study, he urged that Morris' analysis "should be disregarded in its entirety and should not be used to inform legislative decision-making."

In the 18 months prior to the law change in July, 2021, which included the effects of the pandemic, data from the association shows that the average monthly number of vehicle thefts has increased 61% since the law was changed.

There were 39,305 vehicles stolen in 2021. Last year there were 45,033 vehicles stolen in Washington state.

Since the law went into effect, there have been 63,280 vehicles stolen, for a monthly average of 3,515 vehicles stolen per month, according to the association.

Brett Davis contributed to this report.

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