April 5, 2009 in Opinion

Our View: Latest case further sullies law enforcement image

 

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Before Spokane County sheriff’s Sgt. Patrick “Pete” Bunch could be fired, he resigned. With a change in sheriffs and a bizarre incident from February pending, Bunch ran out of last chances. But it’s fair to ask: What took so long to bring the heat?

Bunch had a long employee rap sheet, with incidents involving falsified time cards, lying to his bosses and unprofessional conduct off-duty. He was demoted and then disciplined several times before then-Sheriff Mark Sterk gave him his first last chance in March 2004 for failing to conduct a thorough investigation into a hit-and-run collision involving an off-duty Washington State Patrol trooper who had been drinking before the crash.

Three months later, an off-duty Bunch hindered a Fish and Wildlife officer who was checking for permits at a boat launch. Six weeks later, he entered into another last-chance agreement. Since then, he’s been involved in two incidents that were serious enough to warrant criminal investigations. He was cleared both times by prosecutors.

In the latest incident, an off-duty Bunch said he was searching for his dog in a neighborhood near Ferris High School. A homeowner saw a hooded man walk into her yard, approach her daughter’s window and stare at the license plate of her car. She called 911, and when two Spokane police officers arrived, Bunch briefly struggled with them. He, of all people, should have known the proper response to officers’ commands. Instead, he increased the danger by failing to identify himself and making worrisome moves, according to police reports.

Bunch was charged with resisting arrest. Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich, who sustained the officers’ report, was at a loss to explain why the city prosecutor cleared Bunch. The decision feeds into a growing public impression that the rules are different for law enforcement.

So what will it take before this community’s leaders will say, “Enough!” It didn’t happen with the firehouse sex scandal, the Otto Zehm death and the Shonto Pete shooting. It hasn’t happened with lesser-known incidents. There’s been a smattering of comments about justice and accountability, but there hasn’t been a single elected official who has voiced a full-throated denunciation or call to action. And that is odd, because plenty of their constituents are angry, frustrated and disillusioned.

The additions of Spokane Police Chief Anne Kirkpatrick and Knezovich have been positive developments for this community, but those two won’t always be in charge. An ombudsman position has been created to oversee the police, but the county is still without independent oversight. Elected officials need to adopt a reform agenda for law enforcement or momentum will quickly dissipate.

Help from within law enforcement would be beneficial, too. The good officers in the police and sheriff’s departments – that is, most of them – are being hurt by the perception that their wayward colleagues are untouchable.

Taking on law enforcement from the outside or inside isn’t easy. It takes courage. It takes leadership. But distrust will remain until it is done.


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