MYNORTHWEST POLITICS

Police pursuit, parental rights initiatives go before Washington lawmakers

Feb 28, 2024, 8:03 PM

Image: A Seattle Police Department vehicle...

A Seattle Police Department vehicle (Photo courtesy of the Seattle Police Department)

(Photo courtesy of the Seattle Police Department)

Police pursuits and parental rights in schools were in the spotlight Wednesday as lawmakers considered two citizen-led initiatives aimed at changing the laws currently on the books.

In a joint hearing, both House and Senate members discussed I-2113, which would loosen police pursuit restrictions, and I-2081, that would guarantee parents’ access to their children’s medical and educational records from schools.

Both are part of a group of six measures spearheaded by conservative activist group Let’s Go Washington. All six have now been certified and are set to appear on the November general election ballot after gathering the required voter signatures. The only way the initiatives will not get on the ballot is if the legislature chooses to pass them now.

During the hearing Let’s Go Washington founder and wealthy Republican donor Brian Heywood urged committee members to do that.

“What’s happened with the current law is that we’ve had, first of all, and an increasing disregard for the law. You get citizens that feel like, ‘If they won’t pursue a criminal who steals a car, then why should I obey the speed limit?’ That is a bad precedent to put into a society,” he told them.

The current law first passed in 2021. At its core, it increased the threshold for evidence required for a police pursuit. At the time, Democratic lawmakers and The American Civil Liberties Union of Washington (ACLU) said the intent was to reduce the danger to bystanders during “dangerous, high-speed police pursuits.”

After pushback from law enforcement agencies and local community leaders, the law was amended in 2023, lowering the requirements for police to pursue a suspect, but only if there was “reasonable suspicion” and only for limited crimes. Those include violent offense, sex offense, escape or DUI, vehicular assault and domestic violence.

Supporters of the initiative say it’s still not enough. Let’s Go Washington has pointed to Seattle Police Department Crime Dashboard data showing a 42% rise in car thefts in Seattle since 2021. The group says the police pursuit law is largely to blame.

Heywood told lawmakers that regardless of intent, the law hasn’t made people safer. And he said a rollback would not put them in more danger.

“Sometimes it’s portrayed as being something about a 250 mile an hour chase through a neighborhood in the middle of the afternoon,” Heywood said. “That’s not the intent of this initiative. This initiative is first and foremost, to restore local jurisdiction over making the rules on when a chase or a pursuit should occur.”

Local law enforcement maintains authority

Even if the statewide standard is lowered, local jurisdictions would still be able to set their own rules. Many already do so.

“At a minimum, the legislation sets the floor for what different agencies have to adhere to agencies do currently,” explained Joe McKittrick, a nonpartisan staff member for the Senate Law & Justice Committee. “The initiative would not change the ability of individual agencies to have more restrictive or differing policies as long as they conform to the minimum standards set by the statewide legislation.”

Some lawmakers questioned whether the initiative was necessary. A few pointed out during the hearing that the initiative is markedly similar to the current law in many ways.

Chair of the House Public Safety Committee Rep. Roger Goodman, D-Kirkland, listed numerous aspects of the initiative language before public testimony began. He questioned legislative staffers about whether they align with current legislation. McKittrick confirmed most of them did, before highlighting the main difference the initiative contains.

“What would change is the balancing test that must be performed by the officer when deciding whether or not to engage in the pursuit,” he told Goodman and the other lawmakers. “Under current law, the balancing test is that the person who’s being pursued must pose a serious risk of harm to others and the risks of failing to apprehend or identify the person must be considered greater than the safety risks of the pursuit. The initiative changes that language so that the person must instead pose a threat to the safety of others.”

It’s a move deeply popular with nearly all law enforcement communities in Washington.

“Police pursuits are a necessary, but sometimes dangerous part of police work, said Washington Fraternal Order of Police President Marco Monteblanco in a written statement after the hearing.  “As always, the safety of the general public, peace officers and suspects they pursue must be our top priority. What’s important now is that we get this issue settled, and that we focus on the continuous education and training of officers on this issue.”

Concerns over increased dangers in police pursuits

While testimony at the hearing was largely in favor of the initiative, some Democratic lawmakers expressed skepticism.

“Loosening the restrictions— is there any research that points us to how much of an increased risk to public safety there is with doing that?” asked Sen. Patty Kuderer, D-Bellevue.

“I’m not aware of any research that would prospectively look at how these changes would affect the number of pursuits or the outcomes of those pursuits or any accidents that could be involved,” McKittrick responded.

The ACLU of Washington has previously said police pursuits are the second leading cause of death from police activities. Conversely, the Fatal Encounters Project, which tracks people killed in police incidents, said its data shows the number of people killed during pursuits dropped by 50% since Washington’s policy was first adopted.

“It does sound like current law comes closer to the best practices that have been established nationally, at least in the areas where the current law and the initiative differ,” said Rep. Darya Farivar, D-Seattle.

But in public testimony, Tacoma mother Amber Goldade told lawmakers that keeping the current statute will have deadly consequences.

“My 12-year-old daughter Immaculee and her best friend Kathleen are victims of the no pursuit law and would be victims of the current law,” she said. “The man who struck and killed my daughter from behind, and left Kathleen for dead on the side of the road was driving a stolen truck and high on meth. He was involved in a robbery two weeks prior. The police had him as he was fleeing, but they couldn’t pursue. If they could have he most likely would have been in jail on Jan. 15 2022. My daughter would be alive and I wouldn’t be here.”

Parental rights to school records

Also on Wednesday, a separate joint committee considered an initiative that would provide parents with a right to, among other things, review their students’ educational materials, receive certain notifications, and opt out of sexual health education.

“The initiative provides parents with the right to examine the textbooks curriculum and supplemental material used in their child’s classroom,” explained Ethan Moreno, staffer with the House Education committee.

The measure also outlines parents’ rights to their children’s records, including any non-emergency medical treatment.

According to Moreno, that includes “notification when any medical service or medication had been provided to their child that can result in any financial impact to health insurance. And to receive notification when the school has arranged directly or indirectly for medical treatment, as well as the results and follow up care beyond normal school hours.”

Parents would also be informed if a criminal act was deemed to have been committed against their child. Anytime law enforcement interviewed a child at school, parents would additionally get a heads-up, except in cases where the parent is suspected of child abuse.

Local parents voice support

At the hearing, lawmakers heard from numerous parents who said the legislation is vital for both themselves and their children.

“I speak to you as the mother of a child who had a plan for suicide down on paper, neither her counselor, her teacher, or her administrator told her father and I that she intended to kill herself,” said Joy Gjersvold, speaking on behalf of the Conservative Ladies of Washington. “We saved our daughter, not the school system.”

While hundreds of thousands of Washington voters have signaled their support for the initiative, it comes as the socially conservative “parental rights” movement gathers steam across the United States. It aims to restrict schools’ abilities to teach about gender, sexuality and race without parental consent. Some of the initiative’s supporters implied that those concerns are top of mind here, but argue this push is more about keeping politics out of the classrooms.

“A teacher contacted me and told me, my principal is telling me to lie to parents about their children’s gender identity,” said Jennifer Heine-Withee with the Family Policy Institute of Washington. “Another father told me, I’ve been disenfranchised from my daughters. Because my daughters were taught that white men were the problem in this country. It is evident that we need this law to reinforce the rights of parents time and time again, in federal and state law.”

Access to school records is already law

Much of the initiative establishing “parental rights” is retreading familiar ground. The Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction says much of what the initiative contains is already law in Washington.

“Probably over 90% of the rights included in this initiative, are already current law. But they’re spread throughout many statutes and federal laws,” said Sen. Lisa Wellman, D-Mercer Island.

She called the initiative more of a “tool” for parents, rather than a system overhaul, and encouraged parents to explore their existing rights in a booklet created by nonpartisan legislative staff.

Despite that, some in the educational community flagged concerns about what they say is the confusing nature of the language in I-2081.

Tacoma Public Schools Board President Lisa Keating told lawmakers the priority is the health and safety of students. She asked that the legislature clarify directions to schools on how to address issues that arise with students, particularly around mental health.

“We know that there are concerns that this proposal may be interpreted in such a manner as to require us to tell a student in crisis to pause while we give notice to their parents,” she said.

Other groups, including the Washington Education Association and the Washington State PTA, echoed similar concerns. Erin Lovell with the Legal Counsel for Youth and Children (LCYC) pointed out that schools can serve as a vital resource for LBGTQIA+ students, as well as those struggling with feeling unsafe or unwelcome at home.

“The overly broad and vague language of the initiative may create a chilling effect that poses a safety risk to youth, youth who need support outside of the home,” she testified. “They stop confiding in and asking school staff for help, fearing a report back in retaliation at home.”

Lawmakers on concerns for student wellbeing

Wellman, who chairs the Senate Early Learning & K-12 Education Committee, sought to assuage some of those fears.

“We all know that family members are every child’s first teachers. And I think we can agree that creating an educational system that welcomes and embraces parents and guardians as partners in the education of their children is crucial.”

None of the public testimony, from either lawmakers or speakers, strongly opposed the intent behind the legislation. The concern hinged mainly on successful implementation.

“If there are unintended consequences, particularly for the students involved, we hope that there’ll be an opportunity to come back to correct those issues,” said Tim Garsh, Executive Director for the Washington State School Directors Association.

Next step for the police pursuit, school records initiatives

With the joint hearings concluded, lawmakers have several options to move forward. They can approve each initiative as is, with no changes, or propose their own alternative which would appear alongside the citizen initiative on the ballot. If rejected, the initiatives head to the ballot regardless of lawmakers’ actions. Three of the six initiatives— concerning repeals of the Climate Commitment Act, long-term care tax, and capital gains tax—will follow that course after the Democratic-led House and Senate declined to hold hearings on them.

The fates of I-2081 an I-2113 remain unclear for now. The same goes for I-2111, a prohibition on state income tax that lawmakers considered Tuesday. The legislative session ends next Thursday, Mar. 7.

You can read more of Kate Stone’s stories here. Follow Kate on X, formerly known as Twitter, or email her here.

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