May 1, 2011 in Opinion

Safety demands marked squad cars

Kevin Schmadeka Special to The Spokesman-Review
 

Most people in the Spokane area know the story of what happened to Pastor Wayne Scott Creach. In August of 2010, he went outside at night to investigate a suspicious car that was trespassing upon his property at the Plant Farm Nursery. The car was an unmarked police cruiser driven by Deputy Brian Hirzel.

Pastor Creach had no way of knowing that, however, until after Hirzel had seen him approaching while armed. Creach put his weapon away, but the situation ended with the pastor’s death. The shooting was recently found justified in review processes that the Creach family was completely excluded from.

The incident has brought a number of issues with law enforcement to light, and among them is the fact that police use of unmarked cars, such as the one driven by Hirzel, is illegal under Washington law.

RCW 46.08.065 Section 1 requires that a city or county police vehicle be clearly marked on both sides with lettering or a logo. Section 2, which applies to State Patrol vehicles, requires a conspicuous sticker in the rear window identifying it as an official state vehicle. State Patrol vehicles are also required under RCW 46.08.066, Section 2, to have an official license plate. Both state and local vehicles have exceptions to their marking requirement that apply to vehicles used for confidential, investigative or undercover purposes.

So while the law spells out clearly what’s legal and what’s not, the trouble is with RCW 46.08.067, the law that provides penalties for violations. All it provides for is disciplinary action imposed by the employing agency. Of course, since the agency commanders are the ones ordering the illegal use of these vehicles, those penalties will never be imposed. And because of that, the illegal use of unmarked vehicles for traffic patrols and other purposes has become more or less standard operating procedure for many agencies.

Aside from the issue of “it’s illegal,” this practice puts the public at risk. Police impersonators are greatly encouraged by their use because it makes them harder to tell from real cops. Anyone can be fooled by someone who has installed red and blue flashing lights and is pretending to be driving an unmarked car, as recently happened at Gonzaga University.

Likewise, anyone can mistake a real police officer for someone who is not, as happened to Pastor Creach. Spokane Valley police Chief Rick Van Leuven has stated that the vehicle in question in that case had visible equipment, including a spotlight and push bumper, but that means nothing. Such vehicles are sold to the public, where they are popular among police wannabees, not to mention police impersonators. Without the required markings, they’re still illegal.

The law is intended to make police readily identifiable to the public, because the safety of both depends on it. Yet the law is being flouted by the very people who are hired to enforce it. According to Creach’s son Alan, Chief Van Leuven told the Creach family that police “don’t want to give up their tactical advantage.” Their “tactical advantage” over citizens apparently takes precedence over the law and public safety.

The sheriff’s office has cited as their justification an exemption in the law that reads: “This section shall not apply to vehicles of a sheriff’s office, local police department, or any vehicles used by local peace officers under public authority for special undercover or confidential investigative purposes.” The problem with citing this exemption, however, is that the “undercover or confidential investigative” requirement applies to all the vehicles in that sentence, unless one is willfully misreading the law in order to get away with breaking it.

The Creach family is now working with the Puyallup-based Freedom Restoration Project to lobby the Legislature to raise the penalty for violations to a misdemeanor. The project is generating legislative interest for next year, and it needs support now. The Creach family is also pushing the Spokane Valley City Council for an ordinance that would require law enforcement to follow state law on the issue.

Pastor Creach would be alive today if Deputy Hirzel had simply followed the law on unmarked vehicles (not to mention trespassing and needless escalation of force). But when lawmen won’t enforce the law upon themselves, the law must be made enforceable without their help.

Kevin Schmadeka is director of the Freedom Restoration Project (http://frpwa.com), a Puyallup-based volunteer lobbying group.


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