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Sun., Aug. 13, 2006

Reliable forces

Two events occurred this week that are ostensibly aimed at improved oversight and transparency when it comes to the actions of Spokane police officers. Mayor Dennis Hession revived the Citizens Review Commission, and Spokane County Prosecutor Steve Tucker endorsed the use of coroner inquests.

Hession reappointed four of the seven members of a dormant Citizens Review Commission. The three other appointments are moving through the process. But the key to success is whether the system is reformed. At present, the panel has no staff, no budget and no power. The decision on whether it gets a case to review rests with the police chief.

The good news is that the mayor has sought outside expertise on police oversight. Mike Worley, a 31-year veteran of the Boise Police Department who now runs a consulting business, will provide recommendations. A good place to start could be Worley’s former hometown, which has a system that has earned national praise. After years of struggling with credibility issues, Boise created an ombudsman position that is independent of the Police Department. That office has a budget and small staff with which it can investigate complaints. It reviews all deadly-use-of-force cases and its findings are made public.

The bad news is that Spokane’s incoming chief, Anne Kirkpatrick, has always worked within a closed system and doesn’t appear to be enthusiastic about the prospect of an open one. Spokane’s oversight panel hasn’t been handed a case in 10 years. Kirkpatrick should see that as an indictment of the system, not a sign that the department is perfect.

The other development this week is Tucker’s call for coroner inquests in cases where people die in police custody. Oddly, he does not recommend that the medical examiner call one in the Otto Zehm case, saying it’s too late because so much information has already been released to the public. In other words, this would have been a good idea shortly after Zehm died, but neither he nor anyone else thought of it.

Another curiosity is that such inquests are up to County Medical Examiner Sally Aiken, not him, which raises the question of why he’s floating the idea.

Politics aside, it’s not too late to conduct an inquest into the Zehm case. In fact, such proceedings provide a measure of openness and independence that has been sadly lacking in this case. They can also help put to rest lingering doubts about how prosecutors reach their conclusions.

A case from 1975 provides a good example. A Spokane police officer shot and killed a 17-year-old African American who was fleeing from a house burglary. The officer fired in self-defense because he thought the teen had a gun and was going to use it. The teen had no gun.

The black community was outraged, and a coroner’s inquest was called. The six jurors unanimously supported the officer. The victim’s mother agreed that the officer should not be charged. One month after the shooting, the case was resolved.

It’s too late for a speedy resolution to the Zehm case, but a properly run inquest would boost the credibility of the investigation and give the public insight into the prosecutor’s ultimate decision. In fact, inquests make sense for all disputed in-custody deaths. Yes, it might be politics that presented the idea, but it still should be judged on its merits.

This week’s developments are encouraging, but the public needs to keep an eye on the follow-through.

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