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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Shawn Vestal: The speeding cop was bad enough, but ticket added insult to injury

UPDATED: Thu., Sept. 3, 2020

The Spokane County Public Safety Building.   (JESSE TINSLEY/Spokesman-Review)
The Spokane County Public Safety Building.  (JESSE TINSLEY/Spokesman-Review)

More than three months ago, a Spokane police officer racing for no good reason at 65 miles per hour down the steep pitch of Lincoln Street – where the lower South Hill plunges into downtown – rammed into a car trying to cross Lincoln at Fifth Avenue.

Here’s the way that was initially reported to the community, via a Spokane Police Department news release eight hours later: “A Spokane Police Officer was injured this morning when a driver ran a stop sign and collided with his patrol car.”

The speeding officer, Michael Brunner, did suffer minor injuries. The passenger in the car he hit received a cut on her head that required staples. The driver, who had to be extricated from the wreckage by firefighters, wound up with a broken collarbone, a broken rib, a detached retina – and a ticket for running a stop sign.

You read that right: SPD ticketed the driver, James Collins, for allegedly running a stop sign into Brunner’s path, as Brunner drove without lights or sirens, for no emergency purpose, at more than twice the speed limit toward the intersection (where anyone who drives that road knows that pedestrian crossings are common.)

Before long, SPD Chief Craig Meidl realized there was something fishy, and called on the Washington State Patrol to step in. Brunner now faces two felony charges of vehicular assault, which he pleaded not guilty to on Wednesday.

Oh, and that ticket? That baffling ticket handed out to the victim of Brunner’s alleged crime?

Meidl had it tossed. Which is good.

The question is how it was written in the first place. One other officer was driving behind Brunner as he accelerated down Lincoln, and he saw what happened. That officer, Brandon Roy, later told WSP that “he saw (Collins’ car) stopped at the stop sign,” according to a WSP summary filed in court.

Roy also told investigators that Brunner told him shortly after the crash that he believed he’d been driving 50 mph. We don’t know what Brunner had to say about it, because Brunner did not speak to WSP investigators.

Other witnesses said they thought there was at least shared blame for the crash because Collins proceeded slowly across Lincoln, though they also said that Collins had stopped. Collins said he saw the cars coming down Lincoln, but didn’t think they were going so fast that he couldn’t clear the intersection. Still, witnesses said he was passing slowly across Lincoln.

It’s hard to see any good-faith way that morphs into a ticket and a news release about a driver running a stop sign and injuring an officer.

The driving was reckless enough. It suggests something about Brunner as an individual officer.

That ticket, though. And the news release.

What do they suggest?

To Collins’ attorneys, it’s no mystery – just as the reason for the extraordinarily vague news release the department issued last week was no mystery. That more recent release said only that Brunner had been “involved” in the accident, and he’d been charged with two counts of vehicular assault.

No reason for that charge or any minimum level of detail was included.

Collins’ attorneys, with the firm of Crary, Clark, Domanico, & Chuang, called the release “misleading and false.” They also criticized the prosecutor’s office for filing charges of lesser seriousness than it might have, had it deemed Brunner’s driving “reckless” and not just “in disregard for the safety of others.”

In a statement, the firm said, “Officer Brunner’s actions are wrong. The Prosecutor’s charging decision is wrong. The City of Spokane’s cover-up and attempt to sweep this under the rug is even worse. … The citizens of Spokane deserve better.”

In an interview Tuesday, attorneys James Domanico and Steven Clark said that Collins had approached them after receiving the ticket, puzzled and concerned about the impact it would have on his insurance coverage and other matters. They said the department’s public communications about the case send a bad message.

“It’s about accountability,” Clark said. “How we do treat an officer who messes up compared to how we treat the average person who messes up?”

Department spokeswoman Julie Humphreys has defended the release and denied it was an effort to mislead. She pointed to the decision to quickly call in an investigation from WSP as evidence the department did not ignore the incident. An internal investigation will follow the resolution of the criminal case. In addition, Brunner, who was initially placed on administrative leave, has now been laid off without pay, pending the resolution of the criminal case.

But what nags every bit as much as those news releases is the issuance of that ticket to Collins.

Collins’ attorneys said the ticket was tossed “when the true extent of the on-duty misconduct committed by Officer Brunner became undeniable.”

Humphreys laid out a plausible case, at least, that it was something else: An initial determination, made with limited facts, that was quickly overturned. The day of the crash, Brunner and the Collinses were in the hospital, and Brunner’s high speed wasn’t yet known.

Estimates on that day had Brunner traveling 30 mph – later information would make clear that he had slammed on his brakes – and Collins was traveling 17 mph, in an intersection where Brunner had the right of way.

The following day, Humphreys said, SPD’s command staff learned there were potential problems with the case, and Meidl had the ticket dismissed.

Obviously, in the clear light of hindsight, the ticketing of Collins looks bad – particularly given Roy’s later statement that he saw Collins’ vehicle stop.

The police explanation is this case does not seem outlandish. And the speedy decision to toss the ticket and turn the focus to Brunner put the case on the right road.

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