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The following is presented as part of The Columbian’s Opinion content, which offers a point of view in order to provoke thought and debate of civic issues. Opinions represent the viewpoint of the author. Unsigned editorials represent the consensus opinion of The Columbian’s editorial board, which operates independently of the news department.

In Our View: House Democrats disappoint on police pursuit bill

The Columbian
Published: March 10, 2023, 6:03am

Although a bill regarding police pursuits remains alive in the Legislature, Democrats have some explaining to do. Before the Senate passed its version of the legislation, House Democrats scuttled the bill despite previously demonstrating strong support.

House Bill 1363 would alter a law passed in 2021 that places strict limitations on when law enforcement may engage in vehicular pursuits. The proposal would give police who have reasonable suspicion the authority to pursue someone accused of a violent crime, a sexual crime, vehicular assault, escape, driving under the influence or domestic violence.

The current law allows for pursuits under reasonable suspicion of DUI or probable cause — a more stringent standard — for violent, sexual or escape charges. Law enforcement officials say that law has emboldened suspects to escape from police.

Despite bipartisan support for HB 1363, House Democrats this week rejected a procedural motion that would have brought the bill up for debate on the floor. Even Democrats who co-sponsored the legislation — including Reps. Monica Stonier and Sharon Wylie of Southwest Washington’s 49th District — denied the motion.

Reps. Paul Harris and Kevin Waters, Republicans from the 17th District, said in a joint statement: “We are extremely disappointed the motion was not debated and passed off the House floor. It’s sad that public safety is not a higher priority. This bill would have authorized police to pursue criminal suspects based on reasonable suspicion rather than the much more stringent probable cause.”

Rep. Stephanie McClintock, R-Vancouver, said: “Every Washingtonian is affected by these circumstances. That’s why it is deeply frustrating and disappointing the majority party chose to effectively kill this legislation today.”

It is, indeed, frustrating and disappointing that Democrats would not support a bill they previously championed and that is supported by law enforcement. It also is nonsensical. Public consensus seems clear that changes to the current law are warranted, and Democrats handed Republicans a winning political talking point.

Rep. Joe Fitzgibbon, D-Burien and House majority leader, said: “We have really strong feelings on both sides of the issue. What we’re trying to balance is safety. There are safety risks of vehicular pursuits and there are potential safety impacts from police not being able to pursue.”

Indeed, one of the arguments in favor of limiting police pursuits is that chases endanger the public. But so do situations in which suspected criminals drive away and remain at large.

HB 1363 represents a sincere attempt to balance those concerns. It has been hashed out over the past year, drawing bipartisan support through thoughtful negotiations. The original version of the bill would have allowed police pursuits for any suspected crime, as long as reasonable suspicion applied. The amended bill would work to still limit pursuits while representing an improvement over the current law.

House Democrats embraced those changes — until they didn’t.

Republicans are right to hold Democrats accountable for the change of attitude. Some rhetoric surrounding police pursuit laws is specious; in many cases, a suspect does not represent an immediate threat and can be detained later without the use of a chase. But improvements to the law are necessary for balancing public safety and the ability of officers to effectively perform their duties.

While the Senate has provided a lifeline by passing the bill, House Democrats have damaged their credibility.