Spokane’s police oversight system is so hamstrung it’s basically worthless, critics are saying after the Citizens Review Commission this week tossed out the first case of police misconduct referred to it in a decade.
In an interview Thursday, Spokane Police Chief Anne Kirkpatrick said she’s surprised by the decision but accepts the outcome. On Sept. 22, she had referred a citizen’s complaint about the conduct of an off-duty police officer during a late-night confrontation in a north Spokane neighborhood to the commission. On Tuesday, the commission said it has jurisdiction only over cases where the officer hasn’t already been disciplined. In this incident, the officer had been suspended for a day.
“I didn’t anticipate that. I was doing what I thought was right. My goal was to put things in the hands of the citizens, but I may have misread the ordinance,” said Kirkpatrick, who has been on the job in Spokane for three weeks.
Kirkpatrick, who recently attended a national conference in Boise on new systems of police oversight, said she’ll have a plan in place to overhaul Spokane’s citizen oversight system by early next year after two independent consultants currently reviewing police practices complete their reports.
“We need a system that allows me to open up our agency. I know that’s a priority for the community,” Kirkpatrick said.
The powers of the Citizens Review Commission should be revisited, said the group’s chairman, the Rev. Lonnie Mitchell. “There’s room for improvement,” he said.
Its objectivity was also called into question after one elderly commissioner confronted Bob DeMotte, the citizen who had brought the complaint to Kirkpatrick about the conduct of Lt. Judi Carl during the neighborhood fracas.
After the commission voted to drop the case and adjourned late Tuesday, Commissioner Marie Yates approached DeMotte in the hallway of the Monroe Court building and called him an “ass,” according to eyewitnesses. She represents the police lieutenants and captains on the commission.
“I did call him an ass,” Yates said Thursday. “He’s completely out of line for his complaint. He had nothing to do with this case; he’s made himself the spokesman for the man who pleaded guilty” – homeowner Danny Roske, who brandished an unloaded gun during the incident.
Yates said she’s worked 11 ½ years as a volunteer at the COPS shop in southeast Spokane and is a member of the Police Advisory Committee. “I have a lot of regard for the police, but I’m fair,” Yates said.
Kirkpatrick had asked the commission to decide whether the Spokane Police Department’s internal investigation of Lt. Carl’s conduct on the night of June 4 had been conducted fairly and whether her presence had affected the outcome of the confrontation between Roske and several teenagers he claimed had vandalized his mailbox. The neighborhood in the 8600 block of North Pamela Street had been severely vandalized the weekend before.
Carl has already served a one-day suspension for “conduct unbecoming” an officer for using foul language during the incident that involved two of her children. Roske pleaded guilty to a gross misdemeanor for threatening the teenagers.
But last Tuesday, after two closed-door sessions, the commission voted to drop its review. Carl had already been disciplined shortly before Kirkpatrick took over the department in September and city law allows a review after a citizen complaint only if a police chief has taken no disciplinary action against an officer.
“We can’t proceed further,” said Richard Richard, a retired judge and commission member, before a small group of bewildered and angry citizens.
“The commissioners felt they had to stick to their jurisdiction and not make exceptions,” said Mike Piccolo, a city attorney who advises the commission.
Following Tuesday’s vote, several critics said the commission was set up to fail – its powers neutered by a hostile police department and police unions when it was first established in 1995.
“It’s very handcuffed by the law. In my view, that’s what led the commission to become defunct. Its power is largely illusory,” said Douglas Puckett, a member since 1999 who occupies one of two citizen-at-large seats on the seven-member board.
Puckett said he was frustrated by the outcome of the Carl case.
“I wanted to hear the case. I hope interested people will lobby the city to further empower the Citizens Review Commission. The ordinance is way too narrow,” Puckett said Thursday.
“I’m totally frustrated,” said Bob DeMotte, the citizen who filed the complaint over Carl’s conduct. “They tried to subvert the whole thing.”
DeMotte said he didn’t know Roske but contacted him in mid-June because his own Shadle Park neighborhood had also been plagued by vandalism and burglaries and police had been slow to respond.
He delivered a lengthy report on the incident to Piccolo’s office on Friday, including his own interviews with eyewitnesses.
The commission’s review was the neighbors’ only chance to challenge parts of the police version of the confrontation, said Brenda Roske, Danny Roske’s wife.
Carl threatened to “bury” her husband and the police initially wanted to charge him with four felonies, she said.
“This has been very stressful for him. He’s never been in trouble before,” she said.