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Turmoil, budget problems await city’s new top cop

Fri., July 21, 2006

Spokane police chief nominee Anne E. Kirkpatrick, if confirmed by the City Council, will take control of a department wrought with turmoil and budget problems.

But those who know her say Kirkpatrick will do well.

“She doesn’t shrink from controversy,” said Sumner, Wash., Police Chief Colleen Wilson, a close friend and colleague. “I think she’s the perfect vehicle for change.”

Kirkpatrick could have plenty of controversy waiting for her.

Mayor Dennis Hession this week called for an independent outside review of two high-profile cases involving questionable police officer conduct last winter.

One involves the death of a mentally ill janitor, Otto Zehm, who was violently subdued by police inside a convenience store March 18 and died two days later.

Acting Police Chief Jim Nicks, who declined to apply for the chief position, has maintained that officers acted “definitely within policy” even though police put a small oxygen mask over Zehm’s face – without its intended oxygen feed line – to stop Zehm from spitting on them.

The medical examiner ruled that Zehm died of homicide due to lack of oxygen to his brain stemming from heart failure, as a result of being restrained on March 18.

Spokane police are also under fire for their handling of an investigation into an on-duty sexual misconduct case involving a Spokane firefighter and a 16-year-old girl.

Last week, a $1 million wrongful conduct claim was filed against the Police and Fire departments by attorneys representing the girl. She now contends she was raped by former firefighter Daniel W. Ross, who resigned rather than face discipline.

Two police detectives sent to the Indian Trail firehouse Feb. 10 to investigate the case ordered digital photos of the partially naked girl deleted from Ross’ camera. The photo memory card later could not be retrieved. The city’s prosecutor said the detectives would not be charged with destruction of evidence because there was no intent to commit a crime. They received suspensions of two and three days respectively.

An assistant city attorney said the photos were deleted to protect the victim.

Chief nominee Kirkpatrick on Thursday said she wants to maintain ultimate authority over discipline in such cases. Hession on Monday announced he has reconstituted the city’s Citizen Review Commission over police conduct after the commission became virtually inactive over the past several years.

An ongoing budget crisis at City Hall has had deep ramifications in the Police Department, where 26 officer positions were cut in the second half of 2004. Many of the cuts were accomplished through retirements and other departures, but five officers were laid off.

Currently, lower- and mid-level officers in the Police Guild bargaining unit have been working without a labor contract since the first of the year.

Hession said he has told Guild members he is willing to agree to salary increases that fit into the city’s traditionally tight annual budget, but he will not agree to increases that go beyond what the city can afford. The stalled talks could lead to a bargaining impasse or binding arbitration.


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