He was the man most likely to become Spokane’s next police chief.
He had worked his way up the hard way, from beat cop to motorcycle patrol to SWAT commander, finally becoming the department’s No. 2 man. He served in high-profile posts on the proper civic boards. Intelligent and congenial, he earned the respect of the rank and file.
Then one night as he drove home from a St. Patrick’s Day party, Assistant Police Chief Dave Peffer saw the familiar blue lights of a police car. This time, they were winking in the dark behind his white Jeep Cherokee.
A breath test showed his blood had more than twice the legal alcohol limit. And that was that. Peffer’s ride to the top had just swerved over a cliff.
It is a gloriously warm Thursday evening. Peffer, 53, sits in the declining sunshine, sipping iced tea on the deck of his home in the Spokane Valley’s upscale Painted Hills.
He looks fit and remarkably at ease for a man who a day earlier bid an emotional goodbye to the profession that happily consumed him for nearly 30 years.
Peffer has agreed to speak candidly about his life after two state troopers caught him driving drunk on Dishman-Mica Road.
“I can tell you when that happens, you see your life flashing before your eyes,” he says. “I knew it wasn’t going to be another drunk-driving arrest. I knew it was going to be big news.”
He makes no excuses. He knows his job set him up for a bigger fall than the average citizen.
He also says politics played a part in Chief Terry Mangan’s decision to demote him. After Peffer had been assured his punishment would be determined after his treatment for alcoholism, Mangan publicly demoted him “on my fourth day in the program.”
Peffer’s uniform these days reveals a new passion: A green ball cap advertising Big Dog golf clubs sits slightly askew over his brown hair. The front of his white T-shirt depicts a golfer in full swing. More golf time aside, he admits, retiring was a gut-wrenching decision that caught the department off guard.
With Mangan retiring soon and Peffer leaving, an air of frustration hangs over the Police Department. Despite objections from his men, however, Peffer believes he made the correct move.
In the weeks after his humiliating demotion, he realized he had thrown away his chances of replacing Mangan. He was damaged beyond redemption. The prospect of returning to work as a captain grew less appealing with each day. “Been there, done that,” he says.
Peffer says he was no hard-core drunk, sneaking shots during the day to keep the shakes at bay. He says he rarely drank before 5 p.m. His slide into alcohol abuse took years, beginning with an innocent beer or two at home after work.
Without realizing it, “I increasingly began to rely on alcohol to calm me down and soothe me,” he says. “With an alcohol disorder it seems to always take a crisis to bring it out in the open.” That “I could be that intoxicated and driving a car and not even thinking that I’m intoxicated” terrifies him.
There was a time in the not-so-distant past when police brass driving drunk may never have made the news. The unspoken Brotherhood of the Badge would have kicked in. The inebriated officer would have probably been driven quietly home. Case closed.
Peffer has nothing but praise for the two troopers who, he says, did the right thing. “I know how (heart)sick they were,” he say, “but they had absolutely no options. They were professional. They were sympathetic. They were very nice and they did exactly what they should have done.”
Police work came unexpectedly to Peffer. An Indiana native, he moved to Spokane with his wife, Bitsy, in 1967 with plans of going to Gonzaga University’s law school.
When his financing fell though, Peffer landed a job stacking bricks during the winter. Someone told him the city was giving tests to join the police force. Peffer showed the natural brilliance that would make him a leader: “A cop drives a car. A car has a heater. That’s the job for me!”
Peffer scored first on the civil service exam and first on every police promotional test thereafter. There are few jobs within the Spokane Police Department he didn’t try.
Like most police officers, Peffer never had to fire his weapon in the line of duty. He pauses. No, that’s not right. He did fire his handgun once.
“It was a head shot, too,” he says, not bothering to conceal his pride.
It happened when a meat packing plant caught fire in the late 1960s. The blaze sent burned animals scattering wildly. Peffer ended up hanging on a fence as two officers chased a charred sow his way.
“Shoot it, shoot it,” they screamed. Like “Dirty Harry,” Peffer whipped out his revolver and fired once as the hog bellowed by. The bullet went straight into the suffering animal’s brain, dropping it like a side of bacon.
Peffer theatrically blew smoke from the gun barrel and holstered his weapon. “Then I turned off my radio and hid,” he says, laughing. “I’d had enough of that.”
Humor is one of the reasons for Peffer’s popularity. He has an earthy side that probably dates to his days playing drums as a teenager in road shows and strip joints.
His wedding night was marred when he couldn’t find a replacement drummer. He had to leave his bride at their new apartment while he backed the two girls who billed themselves as the “Stripping Singing Sisters.” “You can imagine what they did when they found out it was my wedding night,” he says.
Peffer and Bitsy have four grown sons. They are still married and good friends, he says, although they have been living apart for several years.
Dealing with his alcohol problems, he adds, is bringing his family closer than they have ever been. Peffer is going to Alcoholics Anonymous meetings a couple of times a week, but working on his sobriety a day at a time.
“Had I made it home that night, I’m not sure it would have ever registered on how I was driving,” says the man who would have been chief.
“I feel good,” he says. “I feel peaceful. Even during my first week of treatment, I knew there would come a time when I would look at that arrest as the best thing that ever happened to me.”
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color Photo
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