Column by Thomas Shapley:
OLYMPIA — “We humbly apologize.”
Those are words no appointed state official wants to utter to the chairman of a key legislative committee after just three weeks on the job.
But Washington State Patrol Chief John Batiste had little choice in making that apology after a state legislator received a barrage of nasty, even threatening, e-mail messages apparently sent by troopers and their families.
Batiste, who took the top WSP job earlier this month, offered the apology “as an individual and as a group,” to House Transportation Chairman Ed Murray, D-Seattle, and Rep. Toby Nixon, R-Kirkland, at a committee hearing Wednesday evening. “I and the union representative want to apologize for the behavior of a few,” he said.
Those few ripped into Nixon for sponsoring a bill on how traffic accidents involving state troopers are handled. The legislation grew out of the February 2002 death of Brock Loshbaugh as he tried to cross the Bothell-Everett Highway in Mill Creek one evening after dark.
The trooper whose vehicle hit him, Jason Crandall, had been a member of the State Patrol for only about eight months at the time of Loshbaugh’s death but had been involved in two previous accidents and reportedly has been involved in three other accidents since. The state has settled a lawsuit with Loshbaugh’s parents, who are outspoken proponents of the legislation, also known as the “Brock Loshbaugh Act.” The State Patrol cleared Crandall of any wrongdoing in the accident. He is apparently still on the road.
As recently redrafted, House Bill 2228 would require that an outside agency at least supervise the investigation of any serious crash in which any law enforcement officer is involved. The idea is to let the public see that police officers are not above the law and that agencies are not covering up for their officers’ mistakes.
The bill would also require that law enforcement officers determined to be at fault in four accidents in any three-year period be suspended from driving on duty for at least a year. It would also require drug and alcohol tests of all parties in any fatal auto accident.
The onslaught of e-mails to Nixon ran from the personal to the political.
“Shame on you, Mr. Nixon,” read one. “And hope one day you and your family need the help of a trooper or a police officer to save one of you, and that those officers would not respond on time.”
Another referred to the legislation as the “Crock” rather than “Brock” bill and threatened Nixon’s political future. “It is simple math … 1,100 troopers (times) 1,100 spouses/partners (times) all of their family members/friends/co-workers … .” The missive also credited the WSP with defeating the election bid of veteran Mercer Island Republican Sen. Jim Horn last November.
Another e-mail said Horn “lost his (seat) thanks to the WSPTA (Washington State Patrol Troopers Association). I hope you are next!”
That was news to Horn, who told me he had no knowledge of the agency or the troopers’ association having any role in his defeat, which he links to how poorly the Bush/Cheney national ticket fared among voters in his district.
Coming from the father of a son who’s honorably worn a badge, here’s the bottom line on this bill: Serious accidents involving police officers should get extraordinary and thoroughly transparent attention and investigation. They’re driving the taxpayers’ rigs, at taxpayers’ expense, acting in the public interest. Law enforcement management should have a mechanism to take demonstrably unsafe drivers out from behind the wheel of police vehicles.