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More Than Badges Necessary For Trust

Wed., Feb. 15, 1995

Communities instinctively want to support police, and should.

Trust, however, is a two-way street. Police need more than badges to secure the public’s trust. In these complicated times, police departments have to work at winning trust, especially among those at society’s margins - who also are most likely to suffer and witness crime.

Spokane’s police department, in its widely recognized neighborhood policing program, has gone well beyond the bounds of law enforcement tradition in its search for partnerships with the community.

But when it comes to handling complaints about the conduct of its officers, the department has been needlessly, self-destructively controlling. This hurts its credibility. The city created a civilian review board in 1992 but from its conception until last year when it crumbled, the panel was opposed and impeded by Police Chief Terry Mangan and his supporters. Both in its design and in the way it was manipulated, the board was set up for failure.

Now the City Council is discussing a new design for a review panel. The design has been improved. But not enough to warrant adoption. If the City Council wants mere lip service to the objectives of civilian review, it may as well just stiff-arm its critics, rather than fostering false hopes.

The first of several flaws is the same one that led to the old board’s demise. Chief Mangan reserved power to decide which complaints received review, and which didn’t. The City Council let the old board collapse, when the board started taking its duties seriously and demanded information about the complaints that Mangan didn’t let it hear. In the new design, complaints classified as involving “police procedures” would not go to the new review board; instead they’d go to an advisory board hand-picked by Mangan.

When the new board would decide whether to review a complaint, it would see only a police department summary of the issue. Only later could it see a fuller account; that would open a door to cover-ups.

And here’s an odd twist: The new board would conduct hearings in public. But its decision making phase, where confidence is won or lost, would occur in secret. So much for credibility.

The police department deserves better. The public deserves better. What does the department fear? It could defuse the suspicions of critics, and reinforce its clear support in the community at large, by handling citizen complaints in an open, confident manner.

The following fields overflowed: CREDIT = John Webster/For the editorial board

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