April 7, 2009 in City

Report suggests prosecutor cut Bunch a break

By The Spokesman-Review
 
Read reports from the internal affairs investigation by clicking on the documents tab above the headline.

An internal affairs investigation into Spokane County sheriff’s Sgt. Pete Bunch indicates prosecutors felt they had enough evidence to charge him with at least two crimes but decided against pursing the case because he was a veteran law enforcement officer.

The disclosure is contained in documents obtained Tuesday by The Spokesman-Review and contradicts earlier comments from Spokane City Prosecutor Jim Bledsoe, whose decision to drop the case is now part of a reopened investigation into the handling of the Feb. 6 confrontation between a hooded, off-duty Bunch and Spokane police officers in a South Hill neighborhood near Ferris High School.

“He told me that although what Sgt. Bunch did was a technical violation of the law and at times obviously unprofessional, that he felt their job was to go after criminals and not law enforcement officers demonstrating a temporary lapse in judgment,” sheriff’s Lt. Bill Rose wrote in a report detailing his March 9 interview with Bledsoe about why no charges were filed. “He also told me that they considered Sgt. Bunch’s career in public service as one of the factors in their decision.”

Although Bledsoe, through city spokeswoman Marlene Feist, disputes the information contained in Rose’s report, some believe the documents might validate growing concern over the appearance of a double standard.

Former Spokane County Prosecutor Don Brockett and Councilman Bob Apple both said the report is yet another example of why the public doesn’t trust the ability of area law enforcement to police themselves.

“If the exercise of bad judgment by the officer is in fact a crime and that officer is not prosecuted in the same way any other person would be, then it’s an obvious double standard,” Brockett said Tuesday. “I wonder how many other cases the prosecutor … has felt sorry for the defendant, and for example his career, and decided as a result of that that he wouldn’t go forward with charges. I don’t think that’s appropriate.”

In the Feb. 6 confrontation with Spokane police, Bunch never identified himself, refused officers’ commands, and exhibited several strange behaviors, including making a snowball, that caused officers to grow concerned for their own safety. He initially struggled with officers attempting to take him into custody after a woman had called 911 to report a hooded man prowling in her yard and approached her teen-age daughter’s bedroom window. Bunch later claimed he was looking for his dog.

Spokane City Councilman Bob Apple said Tuesday the internal affairs document seem to validate many people’s worst fears about police accountability.

“If someone is peering in the windows of kids and there is no explanation why and when they get caught they fight back, any citizen in Spokane would be arrested and thrown in jail and charged with a couple of charges,” Apple said. “I don’t know how you have a double standard like that and allow it to exist.

“It’s telling me we have an internal investigations problem in Spokane,” he added. “It may be worse than anybody suspects or exactly what many do suspect.”

City Councilman Al French said he doubts the city prosecutor has a formal policy calling for different treatment of police officers accused of criminal behavior, but that he wanted to withhold comment until he reads the internal affairs report. “I just cannot imagine that there is such a policy,” French said. “Just on it’s face, it doesn’t pass the sniff test.”

Earlier, Bledsoe had publicly stated that his decision was not based on Bunch’s service as a law enforcement officer and Tuesday he claimed, through Feist, that Rose mischaracterized his comments about how he arrived at his decision against filing charges.

“City Prosecutor Jim Bledsoe says he discussed why he was dropping the case with Lt. Rose but says that the statement you received doesn’t reflect the conversation that they had,” Feist wrote in an email. “He does not make prosecutorial decisions based on whether someone is a law enforcement officer, but on the facts of the case.”

However, no other explanation for why Bledsoe decided against criminal charges was noted in the internal affairs documents.

Rose said Bledsoe concluded that officers had legal justification to arrest Bunch for resisting arrest and obstruction of justice after he failed to comply with their commands.

Bledsoe “did feel probable cause existed for the arrest,” Rose wrote. Bledsoe “went on to say that a little cooperation from Sgt. Bunch would have prevented this entire situation. He (Bledsoe) told me he was not certain if he (Bunch) was having personal problems at home, was feeling picked on or what. He told me that he did not want to ‘grind on the guy’ for his use of bad judgment.”

Rose added one last comment from Bledsoe: “He told me he wished Sgt. Bunch well.”

Apple said the city does not need officials “covering up” cases for law enforcement.

“Saying it’s a lapse of judgment and wishing the guy well so he can peer in the windows of kids in other communities isn’t a good idea,” Apple said. “The public is upset. And I’m upset. I want answers, too, and we are not getting them.”

Bunch quit last week before he faced oral questions as part of the internal investigation. But he did submit several written pages to explain _ complete with legal arguments _ what happened that day.

In that report, he blamed the situation on how Spokane Police Officers Dean Draper and Walt Pegram handled the encounter.

“I was guilty of ‘POP’ or Pissing off the Police,” Bunch wrote. “I did not submit to his unlawful demand to submit to a frisk. He overacted with anger and intimidation. When that did not work he further overreacted by going hands on. (Draper and Pegram) both stated they had ‘tunnel vision’ which can be caused by intense anger from a surge of adrenaline and oxygen which could also trigger their aggressiveness and over reaction.”

A woman who answered the phone at Bunch’s home Tuesday evening said he was not home before ending the call.

As for the continuing investigation, Feist said Monday that City Attorney Howard Delaney will take over review of the case.

“The mayor and the (police) chief demand that our law enforcement officers be held to the highest standards,” Feist said. “They are entrusted with considerable authority, and they, therefore, are expected to live up to the responsibility that comes with that authority.”

Brockett, who has sought to have Bunch charged in connection with an unrelated confrontation with his son-in-law last summer, said comments attributed to Bledsoe erode public confidence in all other law enforcement officers.

“The tragedy of all of this is that there are really good officers working for law enforcement agencies who are affected by these decisions,” he said. “But their duty, I believe, is to step forward and get rid of the bad apples because its just going to hurt the reputation of the law enforcement agency.”


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