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Oversight of police an issue

Sun., July 9, 2006

Four finalists who want to be Spokane’s next police chief currently work at departments where civilian oversight is either defunct, under challenge or doesn’t exist at all.

All four candidates come from departments that do, however, pay substantial attention to concerns of the minority, gay and disadvantaged communities.

“This is a critical appointment for the city and our community,” Spokane Mayor Dennis Hession said last month as he announced the candidates: Anne E. Kirkpatrick, of Federal Way, Wash.; Roger Leland Peterson, of Rochester, Minn.; Linda Eschenfelder Pierce, of Seattle; and Bruce Alan Roberts, the only internal candidate.

The four finalists will meet the public in a series of three open forums beginning Monday.

While each candidate has a different view of civilian oversight, it is increasingly clear the next Spokane police chief will have to address the issue. Since the deaths this year of Otto Zehm and inmate Benites Sichiro, and the controversy involving a city firefighter who had on-duty sex with a 16-year-old girl, community debate on the issue of law enforcement accountability is intensifying.

Civilian oversight in Spokane is nearly defunct, but Hession said he supports the current system – a citizens’ review commission that only hears complaints brought to it by the police chief. The Spokane commission hasn’t heard such a case in a decade.

It will be Hession’s decision to select one of the four finalists, winnowed from a field of 43 applicants from 15 states.

Anne E. Kirkpatrick, Federal Way, Wash.

Kirkpatrick says a “strict” police chief like herself is all that’s needed for oversight of police departments. Her department has no civilian oversight and also doesn’t have a full-time internal affairs unit. She personally interacts with citizens in her Seattle suburb by regularly pulling a shift in a patrol car, like she did last week on the 4th of July.

“My view is that it’s the principle of accountability that’s behind the citizen review board concept,” she said.

As police chief in Ellensburg and later in Federal Way, Kirkpatrick said she was never approached to have an outside civilian auditor or citizens commission review her department.

“I think I’ve proven to hold myself out to be accountable,” she said, “and so it’s not been an issue wherever I’ve worked.”

Federal Way is a racially diverse community, with large populations of Korean Americans, Latinos and Ukrainians. The city’s mayor, Mike Park, himself a Korean immigrant, said Kirkpatrick has been “very accessible to the public” and the minority community.

“We don’t have any active citizen oversight,” Park said, adding that he doesn’t see any need for a panel to monitor the police.

But David R. Koenig, a construction supervisor who lives in Federal Way and is an active member of the Washington Coalition for Open Government, has a different perspective.

While Kirkpatrick has a good reputation, her department, like others in the state, often hides the work product, including internal affairs investigations, from the public, Koenig said.

It’s too difficult and costly, he said, for citizens to get records – even simple accident reports – from police departments.

“I think there really needs to be civilian oversight of departments throughout Washington, and I believe it’s going to take a legislative mandate to correct that,” he said.

Koenig filed a lawsuit against the police department in the adjoining community of Des Moines after officials denied him copies of police reports involving his daughter. The case is now before the Washington Supreme Court.

Currently, complaints about Federal Way officers are assigned to the department’s “professional responsibility unit,” which also handles training, recruiting, volunteers and public information, Kirkpatrick said.

Early in her career in nearby Redmond, Wash., Kirkpatrick and two other women officers sued a sitting judge and a small weekly newspaper and its publisher for printing a story linking the three women to a campaign to oust the judge.

Kirkpatrick, who had just graduated from law school and taken the bar exam, now admits that filing the suit was a mistake.

The incumbent judge called a press conference and accused Kirkpatrick and the other two Redmond officers, all involved with their police union, of distributing campaign signs for his opponent while in uniform and on duty.

“That was not true, and because it wasn’t true, I wanted to take action,” she said. As a member of the police guild’s executive board, she had campaigned for the judge’s opponent but did so off duty, Kirkpatrick said.

The newspaper publisher, Frank Parchman, filed a countersuit and attempted to get a sworn statement from Kirkpatrick – a move that was temporarily blocked by a King County Superior Court judge. Eventually, both suits were dropped with both sides bearing their own attorneys’ fees.

Kirkpatrick said she has matured since then and realizes the newspaper was merely reporting an issue in the midst of a heated judicial campaign.

“I wish I had turned the other cheek,” Kirkpatrick said last week. “If you have a good name, you’re not going to lose it. If you have a bad name, you’re not going to win it back even through a lawsuit.”

Roger Peterson, Rochester, Minn.

Peterson opposed a proposal for citizens to review police conduct in his southeastern Minnesota town two years ago.

Rochester is the third largest city in Minnesota. The two biggest, Minneapolis and St. Paul, have citizens review commissions which independently monitor police conduct.

Peterson told the Rochester Post-Bulletin in 2004 that a review panel of citizens unfamiliar with police procedure, policies and laws would be “unfair to officers.”

“He was opposed to it,” said Jan Gregorson, the newspaper’s police reporter. “I do know that other police departments in our state use it and use it successfully,” she said.

Peterson, the chief since 1998, has the sole authority to decide whether any police officers are disciplined in Rochester.

“The police chief is absolutely accountable to the community for the decisions that he or she makes and for the explanation that either satisfies or doesn’t satisfy the community,” Peterson said.

Calls for an oversight panel have not been renewed recently, said Rochester Mayor Ardell Brede

“Citizen complaints are handled fairly by the police here,” Brede said. “Chief Peterson has wonderful rapport with the community. Don’t take him – we don’t want to lose him,” Brede said jokingly about Peterson’s status as a finalist for the Spokane police chief job.

In 2004, Peterson supported six of 25 complaints about police conduct after internal investigations, the Rochester newspaper reported.

Anyone can file a complaint against the department, said Sarah Clayton, administrative services manager and a former Rochester prosecutor. The police investigate themselves, but any finding of officer misconduct eventually is made public, she said.

“If an officer is disciplined, that’s public information in Minnesota,” Clayton said.

A citizen’s only recourse if they disagree with the chief’s findings is to file a complaint with the Minnesota Department of Human Rights or the U.S. attorney’s office, Clayton said.

Calls for outside review of the police were raised in 1999 after a black woman claimed she was a victim of racial profiling during a police stop in Rochester. Her claim was dismissed by the state’s human rights department, which said the police followed standard procedure.

W.C. Jordan, head of the Rochester chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), made a similar claim in 2002 that he was wrongly stopped and his car illegally searched by police. Later, when Jordan talked with Chief Peterson about his experience, he said he was told there was no police report of his stop and no recollection of it from the officers.

“They had me by the side of the road for two hours. I was legal redress chairman of the NAACP at the time,” Jordan said in a recent interview.

It wasn’t the first time, Jordan said. After moving to Rochester to work for IBM in 1997, Jordan said he was stopped “repeatedly” by police as he returned home after his night shift to a minority neighborhood.

Peterson was at first unsympathetic to complaints of racial profiling but has grown in his job, Jordan said. “He’s probably more sympathetic now than he was initially,” Jordan said, noting that Peterson holds regular meetings with the NAACP and recently invited him to sit on the city’s selection committee for new police officers.

The city got its first two black officers in 2004.

Rochester faced a serious racial incident in September 2002 after a city police officer mistakenly grabbed his Glock handgun instead of his Taser and shot Sudanese refugee Christofar Atak, 31, who was hospitalized with a single bullet wound to his back. Atak was paid $900,000 in an October 2005 federal court settlement; Peterson personally apologized to Atak for the incident.

Peterson also changed the department’s policy on Tasers. They are now bright yellow, have a different grip, and must be carried in the opposite pocket from where police carry their guns.

Linda E. Pierce, Seattle

Pierce, a lawyer and veteran police officer, took over the Seattle Police Department’s Criminal Investigations Bureau in June.

Pierce helped set up Seattle’s current system of civilian oversight after the Seattle City Council approved an ordinance to strengthen it in 1999.

The internal affairs division she headed was folded into a new Office of Professional Accountability with a civilian director and a three-person citizens review board to oversee its work. Citizen complaints are investigated by police assigned to the accountability office.

But fear over being sued by the police union or individual officers has kept the board from releasing a report on police conduct for three years. In an effort to address the problem, the Seattle City Council voted on May 30 to indemnify the board and give its members access to uncensored internal affairs reports.

In response, the Seattle Police Officers’ Guild has filed an unfair labor practices complaint.

Pierce said the change to an oversight board was “born of a controversial incident” involving a senior detective. Sonny Davis left the department after he was charged with taking money from a crime scene.

At the time, the public was also demanding an accounting of violent confrontations between Seattle police and protesters at the World Trade Organization summit in Seattle.

Pierce was “incredibly competent” at putting the citizens review ordinance in place, said Sam Pailca, a lawyer who became the first civilian director of the Office of Professional Accountability in January 2001. “She had a lot of insight and wisdom to share,” said Pailca, who reports to Seattle Police Chief Gil Kerlikowske.

While Pierce was a captain in internal investigations, the OPA received complaints that a police officer was using cocaine and other illegal drugs. John Powers was fired in 2005 after eight years on the force.

Pierce referred the complaints about Powers to the FBI, Pailca said. The FBI presented evidence that Powers used drugs in his patrol car.

The Powers case led to a broader investigation of a group of officers involved in questionable off-duty work in Seattle’s West Precinct, a large downtown area that includes sports stadiums and bars where Pierce was the commander in 2004 and 2005.

“We had the individual officer’s misconduct problem, but we also discovered systemic problems concerning off-duty work and its regulation. The changes were substantive; the entire command staff joined in. That was an issue she helped identify,” Pailca said of Pierce’s role.

Pierce has also had firsthand experience with independent oversight. She was chosen last year for a first-ever external board of inquiry to investigate the conduct of the Los Angeles Police Department’s SWAT team after the death of a toddler in a shootout on July 10, 2005.

Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa hailed the creation of the inquiry board as a “cultural shift” for the LAPD, noting that the “days of closed-door internal investigations that did little to improve public trust are over.” The review panel hasn’t issued its report yet, Pierce said.

She said she doesn’t know what form of civilian oversight would be best for Spokane, or whether the city’s nearly-defunct Citizens’ Review Commission is adequate to address controversial incidents like the death of Otto Zehm, a mentally disabled man who was repeatedly shocked with Taser guns and hogtied on the floor of a Spokane convenience store in March.

“It depends on what the factors are that precipitated this incident. People must trust that we promptly treat these issues,” Pierce said.

“I need to hear from the community: What is it they need and want from the police department?” she said.

Bruce A. Roberts, Spokane

Assistant Police Chief Roberts is the only internal candidate to survive the selection process. He’s also the only candidate among the finalists not to have a college degree.

The 31-year department veteran was chosen by Acting Police Chief Jim Nicks to lead a recent internal investigation of the department’s controversial handling of a Feb. 10, 2006, firehouse sex incident involving firefighter Daniel Ross and a 16-year-old girl.

Nicks put Roberts in charge after The Spokesman-Review reported that two police detectives had directed the deletion of approximately 20 to 30 digital photos of the partially disrobed teenager from Ross’ private camera.

On July 3, Roberts announced his decision to suspend Detective Neil Gallion for two days and Sgt. Joe Peterson for three days.

Roberts said the officers’ motives weren’t suspect but his investigation found “established procedures were not followed and the public trust was compromised.”

Disciplinary letters have been prepared for the two pending suspensions, which will be without pay, and police officers will be retrained in protocols for obtaining evidence, Roberts said in an interview Friday. Roberts said citizen oversight has a role in modern policing – as long as citizens are well-trained in police techniques. He said the newspaper in a series of articles on June 25 provided fairly complete coverage of other citizen review models in the country – and suggested it’s time for a new look at Spokane’s system.

“Ours is 10 years old,” Roberts said. If he becomes Spokane’s police chief, “I’d review how it’s working.”

A citizens review panel should be able to monitor controversial incidents such as the death of Zehm, now under review by the Spokane County prosecutor for possible criminal charges, Roberts said.

“The longer this hangs out without a resolution, some segments of the community begin to have doubts about why,” said Roberts.

Civilian oversight can actually increase citizen trust in police decision-making, but it must be impartial to succeed, he added.

It “cannot be tainted by special-interest groups or legal defense bar or civil litigation interests. It’s got to be a pure, unbiased process, with the people having an education and understanding of how we do business,” he said.

Picking the right police chief for Spokane will be crucial, said Peter Holmes, an attorney who serves on Seattle’s citizen review board.

“You want to find the right fit for Spokane. The question: Are you going to have police investigating police with meaningful civilian oversight, or use some other system? We are still working on it over here,” Holmes said.

Staff writer Thomas Clouse contributed to this story.

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