(The Center Square) – Several Republican lawmakers on Wednesday morning said Sen. Manka Dhingra, chair of the Senate Law & Justice Committee and deputy majority leader of the Washington State Senate, should at least consider legislation that would lower the bar on when police officers in Washington state can engage in a vehicular pursuit of criminals.
House Bill 1363, introduced by Rep. Alicia Rule, D-Blaine, and Rep. Eric Robertson, R-Sumner, would restore the reasonable suspicion threshold for allowing police to pursue drivers they believe have committed crimes. It would roll back House Bill 1054 – passed and signed into law in 2021 – that upped the threshold to probable cause.
Companion Senate Bill 5352, sponsored by Sen. John Lovick, D-Mill Creek, and featuring several co-signers from both parties, has also been introduced.
Dhingra previously said she doesn’t plan to let the legislation be heard before the committee, which would kill the bill. She seemed to soften her stance somewhat during a Tuesday press conference where she indicated there would be a committee hearing on Lovick’s bill.
Republican lawmakers at their Wednesday press conference were critical of Dhingra’s stance on police pursuit reform legislation.
“I think it’s really concerning that one individual in one legislative district can make a decision for all the health and safety of Washington state,” Rep. Jacquelin Maycumber, R-Republic, said. “Our constituency is very concerned. This is a big issue, and the people of Washington state want this addressed.”
She continued, “But to allow individuals to just leave a scene of a crime, drive away at any time and not be able to pursue is really showing with our crime statistics and what’s happening with our communities.”
Auto thefts and people failing to stop for the police have skyrocketed since HB 1054 went into effect on July 25, 2021.
Republican leadership said the decision about police pursuit reform legislation getting a hearing before the committee isn’t Dhingra’s alone.
“There’s 147 people in the Legislature,” Rep. J.T. Wilcox, R-Yelm, observed. “One person absolutely should not be able to do it, and the only way that they can do it is if their caucus empowers them to do that.”
The House Republican leader went on to note, “It’s in their hands.”
His colleague in the Senate agreed.
“She serves at the pleasure of her caucus,” Sen. John Braun, R-Centralia, said. “If her caucus says we want to hear this, they are in a position to do this.”
The issue is far from settled, according to the leader of the Senate Republican Caucus.
“But I think there’s a strong group of folks in that caucus who are committed to addressing this issue in a thoughtful way, and that we are not done yet,” Braun noted.
Dhingra’s reluctance to move legislation forward is based on innocent lives being taken during police pursuits, and she has recommended the state Criminal Justice Training Center study the issue further.
The senator has been referencing an analysis done 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 HB 1054 was implemented – as opposed to 11 in the same time period before the law took effect, a reduction of 73%.
But a member of her own party says the data in that study is flawed.
It has since come to light that Rule informed Dhingra and other lawmakers via email that she commissioned an independent review of Morris’ study by Prof. Matthew J. Hickman, chair of the Department of Criminal Justice, Criminology & Forensics at Seattle University.
Hickman’s findings cast doubt on the validity of the study.
“If this analysis was submitted for peer-review, it would be summarily rejected as it does not satisfy threshold criteria for quantitative scientific work,” he wrote. “The analysis should be disregarded in its entirety and should not be used to inform legislative decision-making.”
Hickman was specifically critical of the small sample size used by Morris.
“Simply tallying the number of fatalities for a limited period prior to and after a law goes into effect will not support a meaningful conclusion about the effectiveness of the legal intervention,” he explained. “Professor Morris has essentially presented an extremely crude version of what is generally referred to as interrupted time-series analysis. There are many pitfalls in this type of analysis and the data requirements are far more stringent than what Professor Morris has presented. The effectiveness of HB 1054 is a very complex question to address, and an adequate research design must be able to consider and rule out alternative explanations for observed changes.”
Sen. Shelly Short, R-Addy, brought up the controversy during the press conference.
“That is the information she [Dhingra] is relying on to put her foot down on any of these bills,” she said.
Time is also a factor, Addy said.
“I think to study it and then getting back to doing something about it continues to put our communities at risk,” she said.
There is “tremendous bipartisan support,” according to Addy, for moving ahead with police pursuit reform legislation.
Wilcox hinted that the House might do just that.
“We should absolutely pursue this in the House, send a bill over to the Senate,” he said. “If Sen. Dhingra isn’t willing to do it, and you know, put some pressure on that body.”