OLYMPIA — Over the years, the Washington state Department of Licensing has issued hundreds of fictitious licenses to help cloak undercover police officers.
The program was so secret that not even the Legislature knew about it, the Kitsap Sun reported Tuesday. It only came to light when the Bremerton newspaper submitted a public records request last year for a story.
Now, the Department of Licensing has gone to lawmakers to finally get approval for the program and to tighten disclosure laws, spokesman Brad Benfield said.
Two Republicans, Rep. Matt Shea of Spokane Valley and Rep. Jason Overstreet of Lynden, said they were floored last week when a fictitious ID bill approved by the Senate arrived in the House Transportation Committee.
"At this point it appears there's no oversight whatsoever," Shea said. The Department of Licensing "has been doing this above the law literally for years."
The lawmakers don't oppose the program but want better rules to prevent abuse. They plan amendments to define legitimate use of the licenses, ensure the program's transparency, and create accountability should it be abused.
"I think the public deserves to know how these things are being used," Overstreet said.
No one knows when the undercover license program began, but those familiar with it believe it has been a reasonable thing to do, Benfield said.
"Everyone who's involved in this program takes it very seriously," he said, noting there have never been reports of misuse.
"It's a tool we absolutely need," added Mitch Barker, executive director of the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs. "I think a driver's license is a pretty cheap way to protect an officer."
The confidential license program is run out of the Department of Licensing integrity unit, the agency's investigative wing, which is headed by Fred Bjornberg, a retired Washington State Patrol detective sergeant, Benfield said.
Only a handful of department employees can issue confidential licenses. A qualifying applicant can't just go to the nearest office to get one; they must go to Olympia to department headquarters, Benfield said. After five years, the IDs expire, just like regular licenses.
The requesting agency must fill out a one-page form, which includes a space to fill in the desired fictitious name. The local, state or federal agency must present the reason for getting the fictitious ID on agency letterhead.
Benfield said the requesting agency also must prove the ID will be used for a criminal justice function.
In addition, the licensing integrity unit is notified if a police officer's fictitious license is run through the department database by other law enforcement, he said.
"We really have to have faith that these law enforcement agencies are using these properly," Benfield said.
The bill seeking program approval sailed through the Senate on a 47-1 voted.
"It was portrayed as a housekeeping bill," said Sen. Christine Rolfes, D-Bainbridge Island.
Rolfes said there were no issues raised about the program in the Senate transportation committee. But she commended Shea and Overstreet for raising questions.