October 1, 2010 in City

Sheriff drops the wait in shooting probes

Investigators can question officer immediately
By The Spokesman-Review
 
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Investigators probing officer-involved shootings will no longer be required to wait at least 72 hours before interviewing Spokane County Sheriff’s Office employees.

Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich announced the change Thursday, ending a departmental practice common at many law enforcement agencies but seen as contradictory and confusing outside of police circles.

The move comes amid continuing public outcry over the nine-day lapse between the Aug. 25 shooting of Spokane Valley pastor and businessman Wayne Scott Creach by Deputy Brian Hirzel, who was allowed to take a scheduled vacation to Montana and Las Vegas before being interviewed by detectives investigating the fatal encounter.

Knezovich said Thursday the 18-year law enforcement veteran was willing to talk the night of the shooting, but investigators were concerned about violating policies prohibiting interviews in critical incidents like officer-involved shootings within the first 72 hours.

In his first in-depth interviews with investigators on Sept. 3, Hirzel said he fired on Creach after the older man refused an order to get on the ground, and instead reached for a pistol tucked into the back waistband of his pants.

Creach, who had gone to check on why a car was in his parking lot so late at night, died of a single gunshot wound to the chest. Hirzel was in uniform but driving an unmarked patrol car that he had pulled into the Creach family’s nursery and greenhouse complex at 14208 E. Fourth Ave. to watch for prowlers in the neighborhood.

Hirzel’s vacation, scheduled since March, was set to begin the day after the shooting.

Investigators told Hirzel, “it’s not going to hurt us if you just do it when you get back,” Knezovich said. “And the rest is history, or infamy.”

After enormous public outcry, investigators told Knezovich “we could have saved Brian, and quite frankly, you, a lot of heartache if we hadn’t had the policy so strict,” the sheriff said.

Knezovich said the policy originated in the 1990s. It’s no longer in effect as of Thursday.

“When something doesn’t make sense, we change it,” he said.

Sheriff’s Office employees involved in uses of deadly force can now give in-depth interviews immediately but still have the right to obtain a lawyer and cannot be coerced to make a statement during the criminal investigation.

“We’re just going to leave it up to the U.S. Constitution and the deputy to determine if he’s ready to give a statement,” Knezovich said. “We’re not to stand in their way.”

The Spokane County Sheriff’s Deputies Association approved the change, Knezovich said.

Sheriff’s spokesman Sgt. Dave Reagan said there was never a reason to change the policy until now.

“We’re having people who are apparently indicating they don’t need to wait 72 hours,” Reagan said. “It seems reasonable. You go with the comfort level of the person involved in the shooting.”

Creach’s son, Alan Creach, praised the decision.

“Something that was just completely unacceptable to the community has been disposed of,” Alan Creach said.

The Spokesman-Review first learned of Hirzel’s vacation from the Creach family, as well as other details surrounding the shooting that authorities withheld for more than a week.

Meanwhile, in a meeting Thursday with Spokane-area journalists, Reagan criticized the media attention given to Alan Creach during the days following the fatal shooting. He said he expects the Creach family to file a claim against the county and suggested Alan Creach simply was trying to increase the size of a potential settlement payout.

“I’ve never seen a non-witness be treated so much like an eyewitness,” Reagan said. “He’s looking at adding zeroes to his check.”

Alan Creach expressed disappointment over the comment Thursday, saying his family hasn’t decided yet whether to file a claim.

“I think that that right there is the kind of offensive attitude that this family has objected to since the night they killed my dad,” Creach said.

Reagan later sought to downplay the comment, expressing regret for how it came out, and saying it was “not my most tactful moment.”

Knezovich quickly distanced himself from his chief spokesman, saying the comment doesn’t reflect his office’s views. The sheriff added that Reagan told him Thursday afternoon he regretted making the comment.

“My statement was made out of a sense of frustration and it was insensitive,” Reagan said in a telephone call Thursday to The Spokesman-Review. “I probably shouldn’t have said it.”


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