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WA lawmakers prepare to act on voter initiatives targeting police pursuits, parental rights

Lawmakers seated in rows in a committee room sit across from a panel of three men testifying
Jeanie Lindsay
NW News Network
Rep. Jim Walsh (R-Aberdeen), Let's Go Washington Founder Brian Heywood, and Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs Policy Director James McMahan, speak on I-2113 at a public hearing Feb. 28, 2024. The initiative would ease certain regulations around police car chases.

Public hearings on three of six voter initiatives continued Wednesday. Lawmakers took a closer look at two measures, focused on parental rights and police car chases. The meetings happened a day after lawmakers heard testimony on another voter initiative aimed at banning future income taxes in the state.

For the most part, people who spoke at the meeting on Initiative 2081, which outlines more than a dozen parents' rights for overseeing their children's schooling, didn't oppose it. Many people spoke in favor of it or were signed up as "other" on the bill.

Conversation was more tense over Initiative 2113, which would loosen certain limits around when police can engage in car chases. People who support it say police need more leeway to do their jobs, but people against it say it could make Washington streets even more dangerous.

The initiatives are part of a group of six Republican-backed proposals that received hundreds of thousands of signatures from supportive Washington voters in 2023.

I-2113, police pursuits

During the hearing on police car chases, lawmakers asked a lot of questions about the initiative's impact. I-2113 is the only measure heard this week that would make substantial changes to existing state law. The Legislature initially passed tight rules on police car chases in 2021 as part of a suite of police accountability policies, but loosened pursuit rules during the 2023 session after complaints from law enforcement that the original policy was too limiting.

A staff presentation highlighted the differences between the original rules, current law and the initiative, showing that the proposed measure would further scale back key parts of the existing law, but not all of it. Supervision and training requirements – as well as the requirement that a pursuit be less risky than losing a possible suspect – would remain unchanged.

But the measure would change part of the state's current law that says officers must have "reasonable suspicion" that a person in a fleeing vehicle committed a specific type of crime – including sex offenses and violent crimes – and that the person poses a "serious risk of harm" to others.

The initiative would broaden the list of offenses that could prompt a pursuit – it says an officer could pursue someone they reasonably suspect broke "the law." It also says the officer could pursue if that person poses a "threat to the safety of" other people.

The wording changes may seem like a minor distinction, but opponents and supporters of the measure argue those few words have a major effect on how police do their jobs.

"No one wants more pursuits, however overly restrictive laws that allow fleeing from law enforcement to be a 'get out of jail free card' are not a solution," said James McMahan, policy director for the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs. He added that officers have reported more drivers refusing to stop since the original law went into effect.

Meanwhile, policing expert Geoffrey Alpert, a professor at the University of South Carolina, said the initiative's language could lead to more dangerous, fatal pursuits, depending on how officers determine whether or not someone poses a threat to others.

"It's all over the board, and it depends on training and it depends on supervision and accountability," he said.

Alpert also highlighted how eased limits on police car chases played out in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, where local reporting shows police car chases surged after officials loosened their restrictions in 2017 to allow pursuits of reckless drivers.

Wednesday's hearing in Olympia also coincided with a new investigation from the San Francisco Chronicle that examined the dangers of police pursuits.

I-2081, parental rights

The other initiative heard Wednesday morning focuses on parents' rights to oversee their child's education, including inspection of any records of health services provided through the school.

The measure outlines more than a dozen rights for parents. That includes the right to inspect their child's academic, medical or health records; receive notice and the option to opt out of certain lessons or activities; and examine classroom materials like textbooks.

A legislative staff analysis shows most of those are reflected under a combination of state and federal regulations, and wouldn't conflict with current laws protecting kids' right to privacy or access to health services.

Most of the people who spoke at the committee meeting were neutral or supportive of the proposal. Supporters say the initiative makes clear for parents what rights they do have. People who signed in as "other" had concerns about implementing some of the vague language included in the proposal, but said they support parents being more involved in their kids' schools.

Senate Early Learning and K-12 Education Committee Chair Lisa Wellman (D-Mercer Island) worked on a document attempting to provide parents some of that clarity after the 2022 legislative session, but said the initiative could help accomplish that goal too.

"It's become clear that it's confusing to understand the full scope of parental rights that already exist because they're not easily accessible or published in one space," Wellmand said.

Wellman added that if the initiative is enacted and leaves education officials with questions, lawmakers will work to resolve those concerns.

What's next

All three of the initiatives are scheduled to be voted on in their respective committees on Friday.

If the measures are approved in committee, they will then head to the floor of each chamber, where lawmakers will ultimately decide whether or not to enact them.

The Legislature cannot change the initiatives in any way, but they could decide to instead approve an alternative for voters to consider. The alternative would be placed on voters' ballots alongside the original initiative proposal, giving voters the opportunity to choose which they want to see put into law.

Lawmakers have until March 7 to enact the proposals or send them to voters.

Jeanie Lindsay is a radio reporter based in Olympia who covers the Washington state government beat for the Northwest News Network, the Pacific Northwest's regional collaboration of NPR stations.