October 27, 2006 in City

Big changes urged for police review

By The Spokesman-Review
 

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A consultant’s report recommends substantial changes for a citizen commission overseeing the Spokane Police Department and sweeping reforms in the way the department handles internal affairs investigations.

The report also recommends an outside police agency take the lead investigative position anytime Spokane police officers are involved in deadly use of force, even when a death doesn’t occur.

“I think it has been thorough, it has been complete and it has been fair,” police Chief Anne Kirkpatrick said Thursday of the independent review, which agreed favoritism was not a factor in the department’s controversial handling of a case involving a firefighter who had sex with a 16-year-old girl at a fire station.

Kirkpartrick, on the job only seven weeks, said she is considering the recommendations and is committed to making changes in the way the Citizens Review Commission operates.

The current commission, dormant for a decade, is “extremely limited” under city law and only allows the citizens review panel to examine cases forwarded to it by the police chief, consultant Mike Worley said in the 44-page report prepared by Police Practices Consulting in Louisville, Ky.

“The current review specifications are too limited, in my opinion, for the commission to be effective as an outside review panel,” Worley said in the report.

The Citizens Review Commission should be authorized to review any case when requested by a citizen following the Police Department’s internal investigation, “regardless of the disciplinary outcome of the case,” the consultant’s report said.

The panel should be provided with a list of completed police internal affairs investigations on a monthly basis, and from that list the chairman should select as many cases as the commission “can reasonably review,” the consultant’s report said.

“The citizens review commission must be perceived by the community as completely independent of the police department for it to be a truly effective review body,” the report said.

The current commission includes designated representatives of the police guild and lieutenants and captains – two powerful labor groups who generally oppose any civilian oversight.

“The representations of the police department labor groups on the citizens review commission should be eliminated,” the consultant’s report said.

Worley was hired on July 17 by Mayor Dennis Hession, who said he was concerned about the Police Department’s eroding “credibility and integrity” in the community. The mayor released the consultant’s report on Thursday at City Hall with the newly named police chief at his side.

Hession said he wants to “respond quickly” to the consultant’s report, which cost taxpayers $8,800. “This is a priority for us as we work to enhance public trust in our police department,” the mayor said.

The extent of the recommendations appeared to come as a bit of a surprise to the mayor.

“I didn’t anticipate Mr. Worley would be making such broad recommendations regarding internal affairs (investigations),” Hession said in response to a reporter’s question.

Worley made 16 separate recommendations for changes in the way the Police Department’s internal affairs process works. The unit now is staffed by a lieutenant, a sergeant and a part-time clerk, “which is very limited staffing, considering the size of the agency.”

In an appendix to his report, the consultant suggested the department consider using noncommissioned civilians, supervised by a senior police commander, to handle the internal affairs unit – a concept used by many other police agencies.

“This concept addresses an issue which is often of significant concern to police employees and agencies – that of personnel assigned to internal investigations facing return to line assignments (in the department) after a period of time,” Worley said.

His report also said the department isn’t doing a good job of tracking complaints filed against its officers.

“It came to my attention during the on-site interviews that some complaints lodged against Spokane Police employees by citizens are not tracked,” the consultant’s report said.

Complaints against officers by other officers only list “Spokane Police Department” as the complainant – a policy that can lead to “abuse of the system through filing of unfounded complaints,” it said. Every complainant should be listed by name in internal records, the report said.

The recommendations included forwarding all citizens complaints of any variety to internal affairs; better security, automation and computer-tracking for all internal affairs cases and replacing a “ledger-type book” now in use by the department.

The consultant also said the assistant city attorney advising the department’s officers should not be the same attorney providing legal advice to the internal affairs unit and the chief.

“Further, given the current climate in Spokane, I recommend, for the near term, that the attorney assigned to this function be the City Attorney himself,” Worley wrote.

The chief and mayor said they are drafting revisions for the citizens oversight panel and soon will make those recommendations to the City Council.

Kirkpatrick has set a personal deadline of spring for having a new citizens review process in place.

Some cities, such as Boise and Portland, spend $250,000 a year and more on civilian oversight of police. Spokane spends nothing.

A second companion review of the Spokane Police Department is being done by the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs. That report, examining policies and procedures, is expected in early December.

Officers of the Spokane Police Guild, the union representing the department’s 280 officers, didn’t immediately provide a statement Thursday when asked for reaction to the consultant’s report.

Kirkpatrick said she will work to build a consensus among various “stakeholders,” including the union and citizens, before making changes to the review committee.

“She’s not the, ‘my way or the highway type,’ ” said Cpl. Tom Lee, the department’s spokesman. “She listens to all sides, and if someone is being quiet or she picks up some body language, she singles them out and asks for their opinion.”

The consultant’s report did not address the March police convenience store encounter with Otto Zehm, a mentally ill man whose death was listed as a homicide.

“A subsequent report will be released addressing the Zehm case when all investigative materials have been completed and reviewed,” Worley said in the report’s overview.

A Spokane police detective took the lead role investigating the scuffle between seven police officers and Zehm. Sheriff’s detectives conducted a “shadow investigation” and supported the lead investigator from the Police Department.

Anytime a Spokane police officer is involved in a deadly use of force, Worley recommended “that the lead investigative role should be assigned to another member agency, and that Spokane Police investigators assigned to the investigation should always take a support role.”

Outside agencies should be used for investigations whenever deadly force is used, including “where an officer fires (a) weapon at a suspect but misses,” he wrote.

The consultant said police should recognize that using outside investigators in such circumstances “is critical to counter perceptions of conflicts of interest.”

Worley was hired after a series of scandals, including the way the Police Department handled the investigation of an on-duty Spokane firefighter who had sex in a fire station with a 16-year-old girl and photographed the encounter. A detective and his sergeant-supervisor who responded to the reported rape ordered the firefighter to delete the photos from his digital camera, apparently thinking they were protecting the victim.

The consultant said he concurred with an internal affairs investigation, which concluded neither of the two detectives “acted in any manner to influence or bias the investigation due to the suspect’s status as a Spokane firefighter.”

After reviewing the internal investigation, Worley said he supports its findings that errors were made by both the sergeant and detective.

“While there were some mitigating circumstances, such as issues with call-out availability, the handling of this case was simply not up to the level of performance I would expect to see from experienced investigators,” the consultant said.

While the detective’s intention to protect a victim who didn’t want to pursue charges was “laudable,” the consultant said, “allowing the photographs to be destroyed compromised the ability to pursue a criminal case should the victim change her mind at a later time or for prosecutors to pursue additional charges which might have later surfaced.”

“Additionally, the deletion of the photographs eliminated corroborating evidence which could have, under certain circumstances, been crucial to an administrative action by the Fire Department against the firefighter,” the report said. The firefighter, Daniel Ross, resigned on the eve of administrative hearings that could have led to his firing.

“The review brings closure to this case,” Kirkpatrick said.

However, the city still faces a $1 million lawsuit filed by the teenager.

The firefighter case also points out the need for the Police Department to have access to an on-call deputy prosecutor who could answer legal questions, the consultant said.

If the investigators had been able to contact a prosecutor and sought legal advice before deleting the pictures, “the outcome of this situation would likely have been markedly different,” the report said.


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