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Public’s Safety Takes A Back Seat

Thu., Nov. 20, 1997

To every citizen or motorist who ever muttered, “Where’s a cop when you really need one?” one answer is: Not on the state and county highways on and near the Spokane Indian Reservation.

If you travel those roads and you count on the Washington State Patrol’s enforcement activities to protect you and your loved ones from drunken drivers, speeders and other highway menaces, you can’t - not since tribal officials accused Trooper David Fenn, a prolific ticket-writer, of racist motives.

Such charges are serious and the State Patrol was correct to treat them so. Law enforcement officers have enormous authority - with tremendous potential for abuse - and charges of misusing it demand prompt, earnest attention.

But the fear of political discomfort does not justify the unsound decisions made in Fenn’s case.

Not only has he been transferred to another jurisdiction, so has his supervisor, Sgt. David McMillan, for allowing Fenn to continue arresting drunken drivers near the reservation. Pay forfeitures for both officers were considered but dropped after they appealed.

Fenn, incidentally, once won the State Patrol’s commendation for his efforts (including issuing tickets) to curb drunken driving. Still, a reassignment and loss of 10 days’ pay would have been insufficient if he were guilty of racist motives.

But the State Patrol’s 10-month investigation found no evidence to support the claim. Only one out of five of the drunken driving tickets he issued was to an American Indian. U.S. Attorney Jim Connelly, who got into the act after the tribe complained about civil rights violations, also says there was no basis for the accusations. Meanwhile, according to Connelly, tribal leaders told federal prosecutors they don’t want to pursue the issue.

Fenn’s and McMillan’s career disruptions notwithstanding, the hasty overreaction by State Patrol higher-ups means local law enforcement jurisdictions now have to make up for the absence of WSP troopers - at least to the extent their limited budgets allow.

The message sent by Olympia is clear: Troopers are to steer clear of the reservation and its environs. The result, as noted by Stevens County Prosecutor Jerry Wetle, is that 41 miles of county roads on the reservation, not to mention extensive stretches of nearby highways 231, 292 and 25, will be patrolled less effectively than they were when Fenn was enforcing the law there.

The greatest victims of this incident aren’t Fenn and McMillan but law-abiding motorists - regardless of race or tribal membership - who just want to travel the public highways in safety.

, DataTimes The following fields overflowed: CREDIT = Doug Floyd/For the editorial board

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