The Thin Blue Line of Policing in Spokane and Public Values,
Personal Safety and the Public’s Right to Oversight
New police chief will be named after six other SPD Top Cops file in and out of key role the past five years
One longevity record for the Spokane Police Department’s head position is five years—2006-2011. Since Anne Kirkpatrick’s leadership, the city has seen the proverbial gate slamming on five others:
Interim Chief Scott Stephens, January – September 2012.
Chief Frank Straub, September 2012 – September 2015.
Interim Chief Rick Dobrow, September 2015 – March 2016.
Interim Law Enforcement Director Jim McDevitt, March 2016 – June 2016.
Assistant Chief Craig Meidl, July 2016-present.
The new chief will be replacing Straub, forced out by Mayor David Condon last year after fellow cops questioned his managerial style. The department is now following up with a report by Kris Cappel, hired on to investigate Mayor Condon’s controversial handling of Straub’s removal.
The little town that could has been grappling with police controversy for decades. Not unique in the USA, though. My own early days as a reporter were covering some of Tucson’s crime problems, but then quickly moved into smaller town intrigues, along the US-Mexico border: Bisbee, Sierra Vista, Nogales, Wilcox, Tombstone. Hands down, as a 23 year old investigating the investigations and investigators, I fell under a heady rush of being in the center of crime, criminality, and crime investigations.
Towns and cities I’ve been a reporter in, especially El Paso, and then adjoining Juarez, all have had their major issues with police corruption, excessive force, citizen-police discord, and misunderstanding on all stakeholders’ parts.
For Spokane, the headwaters of police and sheriff department controversies go back contextually more than 100 years, to be sure, with this mineral-logging-rail hub run by a good old (white) boys’ network. But really, that blue line was let loose in a 2004 book by former Spokesman reporter, Timothy Egan, Breaking Blue. Here, the summary:
“In 1935, the Spokane police regularly extorted sex, food, and money from the reluctant hobos (many of them displaced farmers who had fled the midwestern dust bowls), robbed dairies, and engaged in all manner of nefarious crimes, including murder. This history was suppressed until 1989, when former logger, Vietnam vet, and Spokane cop Tony Bamonte discovered a strange 1955 deathbed confession while researching a thesis on local law enforcement history. Bamonte began to probe what had every appearance of widespread police crime and a massive cover-up whose highlight was the unsolved murder of Town Marshall George Conniff. The fact that many of those involved, now in their 80s and 90s, were still alive made it imperative that Bamonte unravel this mystery. The result is Breaking Blue, a white-knuckle ride through institutional corruption and cover-up that vividly documents Depression-era Spokane and an extraordinary case that few believed would ever be brought to light.”
Live and Die by Lessons Unlearned by History
Facts are stranger than fiction tied to the vagaries of big, small, large, gargantuan towns. Spokane has the curse of Jimmy Marks, the self-described Gypsy of Spokane; we have former mayor Jim West (an ex-cop and state legislator), involved in a high-profile case of same-sex relationships. We have Rachel Dolezal making international news for her self-described African American heritage being debunked by her biological parents. She was a “human rights” activist and member of the Spokane Office of Police Ombudsman Commission.
We have been without a Police Ombudsman for 20 months since the first one, Tim Burns, resigned Jan. 2015. Last November, Raheel Humanyn, a Canadian, was offered the job, but was denied a visa.
A five-member selection committee interviewed finalists in July, and forwarded those names to the ombudsman commission for consideration. Committee member Deb Conklin said in a news release: “The (commission) was concerned from the beginning that the only viable candidate for our ombudsman, among the candidates forwarded to the commission by the first selection committee . . . was someone who would require us to go through this time-consuming visa process.”
The flashpoint for much of this disharmony, citizen fear, and instability with the role of police chief started on March 20, 2006, when 36-year-old Otto Zehm died in a Spokane hospital. Two days earlier, at a Northside ZipTrip, Otto was bludgeoned, Taser shocked and hog-tied by police officers after he was wrongly accused of theft.
One officer ended up convicted of homicide, but the excessive force case exposed that “blue code” tied to covering up facts, evidence tampering and a pretzel-like investigation into the former janitor Otto’s killing.
I have had the pleasure of working with adults with developmental disabilities, adults in memory care and with homeless and recovering addicts, all of whom would be deemed “different” and possibly “threatening” by some untrained eyes.
Police of any ilk should be trained in deescalating situations involving people in mental crises.
The result of Spokane’s $1.67 million settlement with the Otto Zehm family in May 2012 is mandatory crisis intervention training for all police officers who aren’t within a year of retirement. A memorial plaque for Zehm was placed in Mission Park.
Police Advisory Commission and Ombudsman Commission
I retrieved some insight into the search for a new ombudsman and the role of citizen oversight from Spokane teacher, Ladd Smith, who has ties to Hutton and Logan elementary schools. He had always wanted to pursue community service work. For Ladd, this mission is bringing in citizens who represent different focus and ethnic groups. An LGBT perspective on the commission is important to Ladd. He also works on the Police Advisory Committee which held interviews July 20 for those who applied for the position.
The ombudsman and the advisory “board” look into complaints leveled at the police department, from accusations of excessive force to belligerence in the field or improper and unethical behavior, real or perceived.
Ladd says a Middle Eastern member of the Commission received notice from a Spokane mosque of threats and intimidation (not from SPD). How the police department investigates complaints is also looked at by the Commission.
Long-time educator Joan Butler, a senior member of the PAC, police advisory commission, points out that the role of the PAC is neutral: nothing even close to holding police accountable, but more like a citizens’ sounding board when police discuss quarterly department issues, trainings, and projects.
She had just spent all day in a group of six interviewing the two finalists for Spokane Police Chief, writing up her group’s (one of four) findings on the candidates’ interviews. The public met after and grilled the two candidates with citizens’ multiple concerns around policing and the future of the department.
Elk Grove, California, Police Chief Robert Lehner (who was a police chief in Eugene, too) and Yakima chief of police Dominic Rizzi Jr., met the four groups and engaged in a lively public Q and A session, Butler said. The mayor chooses one and gives city council the vote.
Both Joan Butler and Ladd Smith say the SPD has gone through “self-reflection” and is in the midst of a “cultural audit” that also augments the forty hours of mental health crisis training.
One of this magazine’s series around the state of Inland policing featured Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich (see Spokane Coeur d’Alene Living magazine’s “Education Deform—Spokane’s School to Prison Pipeline” from January 2014; “To Jail or Not to Jail, That is the Question” in February 2014).
The head sheriff is clear on the role of health crisis and substance abuse as critical to the county jail’s prisoner population problem. He wants communities to address the mental health issues the neighborhoods and public safety agencies face.
Knezovich is not, however, open to an ombudsman or citizen’s oversight committee for his department, saying it would be “a political nightmare.”
“This is being driven by a few political opponents of mine,” Knezovich said at a news conference a year ago, the day before a 1,000 signatures were delivered to commissioners asking for a specific body to oversee the Sheriff Office’s operations.
High-profile cases involving use of force by Spokane County sheriff’s deputies, and a perceived lack of investigatory independence by the office’s Citizen Advisory Board, precipitated the citizen action designed to have a body appointed by someone other than Knezovich.
“What we’re saying is, we need a system,” said Rick Eichstaedt, director of the Center for Justice and one of the petition’s organizer. “We’re saying, have a group that’s separate from the sheriff and can give him some cover, too.”
Perception, Perceived Threats, A Few Bad Apples/Rogue Cops
The city’s own history with “drama,” Rachel Dolezal, was cited by Knezovich as a reason a commission won’t work.
“We’ve had some bad elected officials, but does that mean we should give up representative government?” Eichstaedt said in a Spokesman article.
One of Ladd’s cohorts on the commission, AJ VanderPol, said he wants an independent oversight group, even given the recent shake-up created by Dolezal’s factual transgressions. The others on the commission include Scott Richter, Jenny Rose and Ladd, Aaron VanderPol (AJ) and Reverend Debra Conklin.
Ladd said eleven people applied for the job of Ombudsman; five were then selected for interviews; and now, only two candidates remain—Jacquelyn MacConnell and Bart Logue, interim Ombudsman.
How can an Ombudsman work? According to Ladd, real effectively:
“OPO can work in a variety of ways and yes, the guild can make or break the effectiveness of oversight work. A current issue is body camera footage and who is entitled to view the footage at the OPO.
“Bart Logue has office staff and/or assistants. Should the assistant to the ombudsman be allowed to view body camera evidence under supervision of ombudsman? If only the ombudsman is allowed to look at body camera evidence, the ombudsman can potentially be mired in hours and hours of camera footage. Currently, the guild believes only the ombudsman should look at the footage. Negotiations with the guild are currently under way.”
Many cops and citizens see police departments as insular and rife with a few bad apples spoiling the majority of competent police.
“As for bad apples, every large organization has them,” Ladd says. “Hopefully, with a new chief, those bad apples will be dealt with quickly and removed from the force after a fair, thorough and timely investigation. The insular nature of police departments makes getting rid of the bad apples difficult.”
Ladd, like Butler and many others, see the SPD out front of being a model of reform because of the DOJ investigation, “with their intense work here in Spokane.” Mayor Condon and other city officials went to DC to receive recognition of the reform.
Spokanites are tired of past events coloring the future, Ladd says, from “Chief Straub leaving as chief under less than desirable circumstances (allegations of creating hostile work environment, temperament issues and inappropriate sexual advances to a female staff person)” . . . to . . . “the alleged rape of a female officer by a male officer at a private party and subsequent actions that allude to a cover up haven’t helped with trust issues.”
It’s a tough story to get one’s arms wrapped around, with national headlines almost daily throwing more fuel on the flames of headlines: “Police Kill Another Unarmed African American Youth . . . Officer Shoots Man Assisting Disabled Person . . . .”
Many in Spokane think the training, sensitivity courses, and the forty DOJ recommendations welcomed by SPD are harbingers of a healthy future for citizen-police relations.
“Finally, Spokane is on the cusp of new leadership as we select a new Chief of Police,” Ladd said.
Paul K. Haeder is a freelance writer who worked in Spokane as a community college instructor and journalist for more than 12 years.
The positions taken in Metro Talk do not necessarily reflect the views of Spokane Coeur d’Alene Living’s publisher, editor or staff.
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