September 10, 2010 in City

Vestal: Kirkpatrick’s ‘protocol’ lecture missed the point

By The Spokesman-Review
 
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Background and the latest updates

Earlier this week, 13 days after a cop fatally shot a citizen on his own property, Spokane police Chief Anne Kirkpatrick appeared before the public.

Basic information about the shooting of Wayne Scott Creach has been slow to emerge and shamefully scarce. Just days earlier, Kirkpatrick’s department had issued a news release describing the Aug. 25 event as a “close encounter” with a “verbal exchange” – paltry, insufficient generalities that could have accurately been stated the morning after the shooting.

Other facts, such as the now notorious vacation of Deputy Brian Hirzel, dribbled out while the cops played PR defense. The idea that the department owes the public an accounting – or that this vacation might strike us as outrageous – seemed not to register.

So when Kirkpatrick began making her statement on Tuesday, one could have been forgiven for assuming she planned to discuss the shooting. What happened, exactly – so far as we know now?

But no. What Kirkpatrick did was offer a lecture on “fatal shooting officer-involved protocol,” an irrelevancy that seemed aimed primarily at rescuing the sheriff’s reputation.

Kirkpatrick shed no light on the shooting itself – not a sliver. She used the word “protocol” 13 times; she referred to the “event” once.

What she did was:

• Scold the press for reporting information in bits and pieces – though some of those bits and pieces came from the off-the-record cops, seemingly trying to add some positive shading to Hirzel’s acts.

• Speak in the slow, emphatic tones of a kindergarten teacher, treating the bureaucratic jargon she was spouting as if it were deep, difficult truth, and enumerating obvious, uncomplicated aspects of the legal system as though she were addressing a room full of cats.

• Insist, preposterously, that the department would not compromise the thoroughness of its investigation. As if someone had asked her to do that. As if she were nobly refusing. As if this thing were dragging on because of dedication to thoroughness, rather than dedication to vacation.

• Emphasize that the sheriff had not allowed Hirzel to go on vacation the day after the shooting. Someone else had done that, she said. Not the sheriff. The sheriff, she said, was not in charge.

It was a spectacular case of missing the point.

And it was another great argument for independent review of police conduct, whether it’s from a citizen board or an ombudsman with real authority.

Not because we can say, yet, whether Hirzel ought to have fired that shot. Seems dubious in some ways to me, but I have no way of knowing for sure. None of us does. The good pastor may have been within his rights that night, but sometimes the best thing to do when a cop tells you to drop the gun is drop the gun.

No, what we need is a system of accountability outside the defensive bureaucratic castle. This isn’t a cop-hater thing – it’s trust-but-verify.

It’s worth noting what Kirkpatrick did not do at the press conference: Provide a single new fact about the case. An investigator took over and answered those questions. The relevant ones.

The defensiveness of Kirkpatrick and Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich is understandable. The hostility that is sometimes directed at cops is stunning and unfair. These men and women do important work, and we owe them a great debt – but we should demand a lot of them, as well. Especially when they shoot us. As distasteful as the cop haters are, so is the over-the-top worship and angry, blame-the-victim rhetoric of police defenders.

In this case, what we have is a sheriff’s deputy, working for the Spokane Valley city police, being investigated by the team led by the Spokane Police Department. The “protocol,” in which agencies team up to prevent the problems of a department investigating itself, is a fine idea. But is the SPD at an arm’s length from the Sheriff’s Office? Kirkpatrick and Knezovich presented a united front at the press conference. Kirkpatrick talked about how they operate as a team.

And she surely went to bat for Ozzie again and again – assuring us that he had not been the one who let Hirzel traipse off to Montana and Las Vegas before sharing his story about what happened Aug. 25, nine days after the fact.

Maybe you’re wondering who did allow that to happen, if it wasn’t the top executive of Hirzel’s organization.

It was Hirzel. He made the call, and investigators went along with it.

“Sheriff Knezovich wasn’t even in town when the issue associated with the vacation and Deputy Hirzel came up,” Kirkpatrick said, for what felt like the 18th time. “There is a team in place. It was brought to the attention of the investigative team that Deputy Hirzel had a pre-scheduled vacation. The team, when that was brought to the team, they talked about it, apparently Deputy Hirzel had expressed his complete willingness to be, willing to give a volunteer statement but he wanted to go on vacation. Ultimately, it was Detective Hirzel’s decision to go on vacation.”

The buck, in other words, stops there.

Shawn Vestal can be reached at (509) 459-5431 or shawnv@spokesman.com.


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