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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
News >  Spokane

‘Force multiplier’: Limited officers augment police effectiveness

Sacajawea Middle School resource officer Walter Pegram chats with students during lunch recess last week. Pegram is a limited commission officer – one who has some law enforcement capabilities and arrest power but isn’t an actual police officer. (Colin Mulvany)
Sacajawea Middle School resource officer Walter Pegram chats with students during lunch recess last week. Pegram is a limited commission officer – one who has some law enforcement capabilities and arrest power but isn’t an actual police officer. (Colin Mulvany) Buy this photo

As students came pouring out of Lewis and Clark High School for lunch on a warm April afternoon, Walter Pegram kept a watchful eye from his car parked under the Interstate 90 overpass.

“We try to keep adults out of the parking lot,” he said, because some hang out near school grounds to sell drugs or get students in trouble.

Though he has a badge, a uniform and a car outfitted like a police cruiser, Pegram isn’t a cop. He’s a school resource officer, employed by Spokane Public Schools, who works under a limited officer commission from the police department.

Pegram came to the job after years of work in youth counseling and said his goal has always been the same: to help keep kids safe. He spent 10 years as a reserve officer for Spokane police and now works out of Sacajawea Middle School, where he usually carries candy to give students at lunch.

Countywide, there are about 248 people who have been granted limited law enforcement powers by either the police department or sheriff’s office, including, in many cases, the power to make arrests.

Those powers, granted through a limited police commission or special deputy commission, allow people who don’t work in regular law enforcement to detain, cite and arrest people for a predefined set of crimes and municipal infractions, which vary depending on the job but generally include only misdemeanors.

School resource officers like Pegram are required to be former law enforcement officers or reserves. They also have more power than many other people with limited commissions, including felony arrest authority and the ability to transport people to jail.

Though it’s common to find retired or former law enforcement officers working in private security, law enforcement experience is not a requirement for most people with limited commissions.

For Jim Osburn, being a security officer was a better fit than working for the police. Osburn works at Providence Sacred Heart Medical Center, and he said he’s always liked catching bad guys.

He went through the Washington State Patrol academy in the 1980s but found the trooper schedule made it too difficult to spend time with his newborn son.

“It just wasn’t for me,” he said.

He got his first security job as a loss prevention officer, catching shoplifters at Safeway. Now, he’s been at Providence for 25 years, where he does everything from stopping people stealing from the gift shop to helping find cars in the hospital parking lot.

Many of his calls come from the emergency room, where patients who are using drugs or in crisis sometimes get combative or disruptive.

“Usually later on they come down off the drug and they’re really nice people,” Osburn said.

Osburn and his fellow officers take pride in keeping the hospital safe for vulnerable people.

“We’re in a position where we have to protect people because they’re incapable of helping themselves,” said Mark Howard, the security manager for Providence Health Care’s urban campuses and a former Spokane police officer.

Most can’t carry firearms

Special officers receive 40 hours of training from the police department covering report writing, arrest tactics and other skills, though that training may be waived if the officer has recent law enforcement experience.

They can’t carry firearms unless they’re specifically authorized by the police chief or sheriff, but they may carry batons, pepper spray or other tools.

Osburn and other commissioned Providence security guards can make arrests for specific offenses while on Providence property, including criminal trespass, theft, lewd conduct and assault.

An arrest doesn’t mean transporting someone to jail. Instead, the officer can complete a police report and write a citation requiring someone to appear in court on the charge.

Commissioned security staff can also check vehicle registrations and warrants.

Police and security say it’s a mutually beneficial relationship because security can handle an arrest from start to finish.

“It’s kind of a win-win … it frees up the police to do other investigations, other duties and it frees up the store security to not have to wait hours for a police response,” said Lt. Alan Arnzen, who oversaw the police department’s limited commission program from 2006 until 2011.

“Us having special commissions, it’s a huge force multiplier for the police department,” said Howard, of Providence Health Care.

Most are government employees

Though security guards for banks, stores and private colleges make up about a quarter of city police commissions, most private security guards have no special license from local law enforcement.

Many people who hold limited or special police commissions are government employees. At the Sheriff’s Office, they include animal control officers, volunteers with the Sheriff’s Community Oriented Policing Effort and Fish and Wildlife officers.

Among the 175 people with current city commissions, 126 work for a public entity, including Spokane Public Schools and the Spokane Transit Authority.

Topping the list? The city itself, with 77 commissioned employees who work as code enforcers, fire investigators, parking enforcement and a half-dozen other jobs.

At a glance, city workers have little in common with private security guards. But many oversee specific regulations on everything from overhanging vegetation to discharge of stormwater. While police have the authority to enforce those laws and ordinances, most aren’t familiar with every regulation on the books.

“If I got a call to enforce stormwater facilities or stormwater regulations, I would know nothing about that,” said Arnzen.

Though it’s not uncommon for security guards to hear jokes about “rent-a-cops” from the public, many see themselves as part of the law enforcement community in Spokane.

Security officers at Riverfront Park are often aspiring police officers, though they start out making $10.75 an hour, far less than they’d earn working for the police department.

“Here, it’s a steppingstone,” said Justin Worthington, the park’s security supervisor. “It’s one of the best experiences to become a police officer short of being a reserve.”

The park’s security office includes a “Wall of Fame” displaying the security badges for about 45 former park officers who went on to work for the police department.

“When I ran the program … I really got to know those guys and I liked them and I developed a working friendship,” said Arnzen, referring to limited commission officers. “The battles are somewhat similar.”

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