OLYMPIA, Wash. – For decades, police officers in Washington have been able to obtain false driver licenses for undercover work. But this quasi-secret program inside the Department of Licensing only recently came to light. It turns out the confidential ID program was never approved by the legislature. Now two state lawmakers are calling for more oversight to prevent possible abuses.
As a street cop in the early 1980s, Mitch Barker went undercover to work drugs and vice. The Washington Department of Licensing helped him assume a fake identity.
“At that time we got the state issued fictitious driver’s license, identification,” Barker explains.
The picture on the license was Barker’s. But everything else was false: name, birthdate, address. All these years later, Barker still won’t reveal his alias – that’s his secret.
Today Barker heads the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs. He says the fictitious driver’s license program is still a key piece of protection for undercover cops.
“You’re not wearing a ballistic vest often and you’re not armed the way you’d like to be and you don’t have a radio and you don’t have all that other equipment with you," Barker says. "And I think a driver’s license is a pretty cheap way to try to protect somebody.”
At least 22 states issue false IDs to undercover officers. That’s according to a survey by the American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators. In Oregon there’s a specific statute on it. But in Washington and Idaho, the confidential driver’s license programs have never been authorized by the legislature. There aren’t even administrative rules.
At the Washington Department of Licensing, the program has operated on a need-to-know basis. Spokesman Brad Benfield says he was with the agency for years before he learned of it.
“It’s a confidential program," he says. "It’s confidential for a reason.”
Benfield says the agency’s current managers have been unable to trace the origins of the program – or who allowed it to begin with. But in 2007, confidential licenses were taken over by the Department’s License Integrity Unit – run by a retired State Patrol Detective Sergeant.
Since then, more than 1,400 of these false IDs have been issued to local, state, federal and even Canadian law enforcement agencies. Agency officials say no applications have been turned down that they can recall. Currently, more than 1,000 of these licenses are active. They expire after five years. Officers who want one must get approval from their top brass. And there’s a formal application process.
But Benfield says his agency doesn’t ask too many questions about how the license will be used.
“I think that there has to be some measure of trust that people are using these for the intended, undercover law enforcement purposes.”
Benfield says anytime there’s activity on a confidential driver’s license – like a traffic stop – that’s flagged in the system and the agency it’s assigned to is notified. He adds there have been no reports of abuse.
“The only incident anybody could remember was a couple years ago when an officer from one of the agencies left his job and didn’t return the card. So we canceled it.”
Even so, the very existence of this unauthorized program has alarmed a pair of Washington state lawmakers.
“At this point it appears that there’s no oversight whatsoever and that they’ve been doing this above the law literally for years, ” says Republican Matt Shea. He sits on the House Transportation committee.
Shea says he first heard about confidential driver’s licenses when Department of Licensing managers recently came before the House Transportation Committee. They were there to ask for retroactive permission to run the program.
Fellow Republican Jason Overstreet says it raises all sorts of questions.
“What happens when someone comes out of undercover work is that required to be turned back in or do we just have lots of peace officers moving around with two identities?”
Overstreet and Shea say they don’t want to do anything to jeopardize the safety of undercover cops. But in the coming weeks they do plan to propose a series of safeguards to help ensure there are no abuses.
Both the Department of Licensing and the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs say they want legal authorization for the confidential driver’s license program, but that additional limits are unnecessary.
This story was produced in collaboration with The Kitsap Sun newspaper.
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Audio: Mitch Barker describes the night his cover was blown - Northwest News Network