May 10, 2011 in City, Region

Washington bill addresses unmarked patrol cars

By The Spokesman-Review
 
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Two Republican lawmakers from Spokane Valley have introduced a bill in the Washington House of Representatives that would bar Spokane County Sheriff’s deputies from parking their unmarked cars on private property for routine matters.

The bill, sponsored by Reps. Matt Shea and Larry Crouse, both of Spokane Valley, would clarify what they called a “vague” state law that allows local law enforcement to use unmarked cars for administrative menial tasks. They both said in a news release that the clarification would avoid future situations like the one on Aug. 25 that led to the fatal shooting of 74-year-old Wayne Scott Creach last summer.

“The tragic shooting of Pastor Creach was avoidable. It’s made a lot of people take a second look at practices and procedures that have been commonplace in the past,” Crouse said in the release. “Law enforcement has a critical job to do. We just want to make sure something like this doesn’t happen again. Putting these new guidelines in place for will help us avoid similar tragedies in the future.”

Sheriff’s Deputy Brian Hirzel has been cleared in the shooting by Spokane County prosecutors, and most recently, by the Spokane County Sheriff’s Citizen Advisory Board for the shooting.

He parked his unmarked police car at Creach’s family business, The Plant Farm, on the night of Aug. 25 that night after a neighbor requested an extra patrol because her son was having trouble with local youths.

As he waited, Hirzel told investigators that he was filling out a collision report from earlier in the evening, he told investigators, when he saw a man approaching him with a gun. Hirzel said the man, who turned out to be Creach, the founder of Greenacres Baptist Church, initially refused to put down the gun but eventually placed it the gun in waistband of his pants.

Hirzel exited his car and ordered the man to get on the ground. When Creach refused, Hirzel claimed that he hit Creach in the knee with his police baton. He said Creach initially buckled and then reached for his gun. Hirzel said he fired when he saw the butt of the pistol grip.

“It’s reasonable to expect any time there is an unknown car parked on private property, the property owner is likely to go out and investigate. That’s what this pastor did. He should not have been killed while protecting his own property,” Shea said in the release. “In the interest of safety and private property rights, I think unmarked police cars should not be parked on private property while the officer is doing administrative functions or routine reports.”

Under the bill, deputies or police officers in unmarked patrol cars “shall not remain on private property while the officer is filling out reports or executing other administrative activities.”

The bill has been referred to the House Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness Committee for further consideration is necessary “to make sure such a tragedy isn’t repeated,” Shea said. However, the sponsors did not get leadership approval to bring the bill up during the current special session on the state budget.

Shea said he wanted to get the conversation started and work through any concerns from law enforcement officials before re-introducing the bill in next year’s session.

Alan Creach, son of the slain pastor, said he hopes something is done regardless of when lawmakers consider it.

“This is about public safety and private property rights,” Creach said. “It would have been a lot easier for the sheriff to change it. But he didn’t … and I think it’s at the expense of the community.”

Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich said he doesn’t understand what Shea and Crouse are trying to accomplish with the bill.

“I can’t tell you how many times members of the community or business people have said, ‘Any time you folks need to park in my parking lot or driveway, we want up there taking care of issues,’” Knezovich said. “Those people expect us to be in those parking lots protecting their businesses in the wee hours of the morning. That’s how we operate.”

When asked if his comments referred to marked or unmarked cars, Knezovich said both apply. The sheriff’s office, which contracts to provide police services to Spokane Valley, has 24 marked cars and 10 unmarked cars that patrol the city. Another 13 unmarked cars are used by patrol and supervisors in the unincorporated portions of Spokane County.

“What are our options? Are we supposed to go find a school parking lot or go back to the station rather than being out in the community and being that presence to prevent crime?” he asked.

Also Tuesday his office released questions posed by the 12-member Citizen’s Advisory Committee. That board posed 19 questions of sheriff’s investigators, including why it took deputies 8 minutes before beginning CPR on Creach following the shooting.

The board also asked whether the unmarked car played a role; they inquired about the trajectory of the bullet, why they detectives didn’t look for blood inside Hirzel’s car and why Hirzel was carrying a badge from Kootenai County _ something that investigators had not previously revealed.

Those answers were not contained in materials released as part of a records request by The Spokesman-Review, but the information did contain four paragraphs from the committee thanking the sheriff’s officials for the answers to its inquiries.

“The questions and concerns of the Advisory Board were answered completely and with transparency,” the letter stated. “We felt that though this was a tragic incident, Sheriff’s Deputy Brian Hirzel acted in a reasonable manner based on our review of the case files.”

Reporter Jim Camden contributed to this story.

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