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Editorial: Use-of-force inquiries must build confidence

It is no surprise that an internal investigation in the Spokane County Sheriff’s Office has cleared Deputy Brian Hirzel of wrongdoing in the shooting death of Wayne Scott Creach last Aug. 25.

Nor is it any surprise that Creach’s family isn’t buying it.

Those respective stands have been a constant pattern in the dispute for 10 months, and they probably won’t fade for months to come. Maybe years.

The official conclusion, announced Wednesday by Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich, is credible. Evidence, such as it is, indicates that Hirzel was going about his duty appropriately that tragic night.

That doesn’t mean his purpose for pulling into the parking lot of a Spokane Valley nursery (to complete paperwork) would have been evident to the property owner, but an orderly society requires that citizens respect a law enforcement officer’s authority. Had Creach called 911 instead of going outside to confront the driver of the unmarked car – or if he at least had complied with the uniformed deputy’s directive to lay his gun down – he would be alive now.

Because Hirzel is the only surviving witness to the encounter, the investigation had to rely heavily on the account of the one person who was under a magnifying glass. Creach family members are suspicious. Skeptics aren’t reassured.

But at least one significant aspect seems reasonably clear. Creach felt himself justified in approaching the car in his parking lot and displaying a weapon, even after the deputy identified himself and showed himself – badge, uniform and all. Family members have stressed his right to act as he did on his own property.

Law and order is hard to maintain if authorities aren’t granted the discretion they need to take control of a tense situation. That in turn necessitates the cooperation of a law-abiding public that sees police officers and sheriff’s deputies as servants, not adversaries.

Police have to earn that trust, of course, and it didn’t help in this case that in the immediate aftermath of the shooting, Hirzel was extended courtesies no member of the public would expect to receive. His name was withheld. He wasn’t questioned for three days. He was allowed to leave town on a vacation that made him unavailable to investigators.

Such treatment in use-of-force inquiries – of which there have been many in recent years – gives the public cause to wonder how earnestly law enforcement officers investigate each other.

No one has a greater stake in securing the public’s confidence in law enforcement than the professionals who depend on it. So while the Creach family’s criticism strikes us as unfounded, the ongoing responsibility to build confidence rests on the shoulders of those – rank and file as well as top brass – whose image is tarnished by occasional rogue behavior.

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