Thurston deputies ignoring state law on accident reports

Sheriff says staffing inadequate to write required reports for noninjury crashes

ckrotzer@theolympian.comMarch 3, 2013 

Faced with a growing workload, the Thurston County Sheriff’s Office is allowing understaffed deputies to bypass part of state law.

As patrol deputies take over collision investigations from the Washington State Patrol, the Sheriff’s Office is allowing deputies to decide whether to write up reports on property damage-only crashes.

That’s an option not in line with state law.

“It’s a decision the sheriff is making, knowing full well what the law says and making a policy-level decision based on the available resources of the Sheriff’s Office,” Lt. Greg Elwin said. “We understand there is the letter of the law, but then there is what we can do.

“How can we meet the requirement of the law with the resources that we have?”

The change in who investigates traffic wrecks was part of a legislative mandate requiring the Sheriff’s Office to take over responses on county roads during the 2011-13 biennium.

The department estimates that will mean another 1,200 calls each year. In 2011, for example, the county investigated 239 crashes on Thurston roads; the State Patrol handled 1,152.

Crash investigations by the county have spiked by 160 percent, going to 519 in 2012 from 200 in 2010, Elwin said.

The first phase of the changeover began in July 2012 with the Sheriff’s Office responding to noninjury crashes and the State Patrol continuing to respond to injury and fatal collisions. The county took over injury crashes in January and will respond to all crashes, including fatalities, by July.

The State Patrol will still provide assistance when needed, according to trooper Guy Gill.

The process has strained the department’s resources, Elwin said.

“We have found there are some hurdles with responding to collisions, and then having the investigations interrupted by a Priority 1 or 2 call,” he said.

Priority 1 calls include homicides, active assaults, active robberies, pursuits and injury accidents. Priority 2 calls include hit-and-runs, bomb threats, child abuse or neglect, DUI drivers and domestic violence.

“Certainly you want there to be priorities,” said Andrew Toynbee, Thurston County Prosecutor’s Office chief criminal deputy. “You wouldn’t want them not to respond to a robbery or something like that because they were filling out a traffic report.

“They are in the best position to determine what resources they have and how to prioritize their resources.”

MAKING IT WORK

The policy giving deputies the discretion in how to handle crash reports began Feb. 1.

The Revised Code of Washington requires a collision report be filed by those involved in a crash, unless an officer responds and investigates.

Under the code, if an officer investigates, any officers “present at the scene of any accident or in possession of any facts concerning any accident whether by way of official investigation or otherwise shall make a report.”

The RCW requires reports for crashes that involve injury, crime, or meet a $700 property-damage threshold. It’s that threshold the county is choosing to bypass, kicking the responsibility of a crash report back to the citizen involved in the crash.

“That $700 is such a low threshold that really any kind of car accident is going to meet that,” Elwin said.

The State Patrol increased the threshold to $700 from the original $500 listed in the RCW. The RCW gives the agency the authority to boost the threshold for inflation, according to Kyle Thiessen, state code reviser. The threshold hasn’t increased from $700 in a decade.

Sheriff’s officials discussed changing the policy on reports with the county attorney, as well as traffic safety experts before making their decision, Elwin said.

The lack of collision reports won’t affect insurance claims, because the state does not require the reports from police for insurance purposes, Elwin said.

“We will strongly encourage (deputies) if you have the time and conduct a collision investigation, then do so, but it’s still discretionary,” Elwin said.

STAFFING

The driving force for the new policy is staffing, Elwin said.

The Sheriff’s Office has 58 patrol deputies and six sergeants to cover county roads that crisscross the county’s 723 square miles.

Of those 58 patrol positions, two are new and two are vacant. One of the vacant positions will be filled in March.

County commissioners approved hiring two new deputies when they adopted the 2013 budget.

In the early 2000s, the Sheriff’s Office had a traffic enforcement division. The five-deputy team was created to prepare for the transition with the State Patrol, something on the horizon for more than a decade, Elwin said.

The traffic division eventually was eliminated because of budget constraints.

“We had this in place at one time and minimally, this is what we are going to need to take over the collision response and investigation now,” Elwin said.

The Sheriff’s Office initially requested five deputies to help cover the additional work. The county set aside $210,000 to cover hiring of two deputies and costs for two patrol cars and equipment costs.

“Obviously, we would love to staff every department adequately, but the reality is there isn’t the money to do that,” said County Commissioner Sandra Romero.

Romero said the county’s main concern was hiring staff needed to open the new jail.

“This year we weren’t able to get (the sheriff) what he needs,” Romero said. “Next year is a brand new day, but the highest priority now is getting into the ARC (Accountability and Restitution Center).”

The two deputies for the new positions are being interviewed. Once hired, there will still be one vacant patrol position.

At full staffing, the Sheriff’s Office will be three short of the number of deputies the department says it needs to cover crashes.

“We know that they have a lack of resources and we appreciate their ability to work on the more serious cases,” Toynbee said. “We oftentimes are relying on them to do followup on the more serious cases and we do like to see more of that.

“It would really be absurd to require them to stop and take a report on something where there wasn’t any crime or injury at the expense of something much more serious.”

TRANSITIONING

Neighboring counties have already gone through the transition in crash investigations.

Mason County began responding to county road crashes in 2008; Lewis County started in 2011.

Both still write crash reports for property-damage collisions that exceed $700.

“There is an RCW requiring you to document the collision by a report,” said Lewis County Sheriff’s Cmdr. Steve Aust. “We are required if it meets the property-damage threshold.”

Lewis County has 20 patrol deputies and four sergeants responsible for covering the 2,403 square miles. No new deputies have been hired to take on the added duties.

“It’s kind of feast or famine,” Aust said. “On the icy mornings we have, it’s accident after accident and we are really taxed. Or it’s just like any other call and you absorb it.”

Mason County has six deputies specifically for collision and traffic-related calls.

“We came up with the traffic-enforcement unit with traffic investigators who went to school for accident reconstruction,” Detective William Adam said. “They had to be as trained as the troopers.”

Those deputies file reports if a property-damage-only crash meets the state required threshold. Deputies also file in cases of a hit-and-run or injury accidents, Detective William Adam said.

Both counties occasionally rely on help from the State Patrol.

The same help has been extended to Thurston County.

“We have a great working relationship with the Thurston County Sheriff’s Office and meet with them regularly to discuss any concerns about collision investigation and other law enforcement business,” the patrol’s Gill said. “We will assist them anytime if needed.”

While Thurston County deputies might not write a report for a property damage-only crash, they still respond.

“We will get there to facilitate traffic safety, ensure there is no injury and make sure there is no crime involved,” Elwin said. “All that stuff is nondiscretionary.”

Deputies also ensure the road is clear and, if necessary, arrange for a tow truck.

They will leave those involved with the proper forms to file a citizen’s collision report.

“If we ensure that happens, we feel we are meeting enough of the RCW requirement,” Elwin said.

The only thing Elwin said deputies will do differently from what the State Patrol did is completing the collision report.

“If we had a traffic-collision investigation team (and) that’s all they did, then we would change our approach,” Elwin said. “But as it stands now, with the available resources that we have, we are doing what we can with what we have.

“We have to draw a line somewhere.”

Chelsea Krotzer: 360-754-5476 ckrotzer@theolympian.com theolympian.com/thisjustin

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