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New chief examines increasing oversight

BOISE – At a national conference on police oversight Monday, a short woman in a dark suit had one of the first questions for the noted speaker, who was saying it was important for citizens to monitor their police agencies.

The question for police-oversight author and law professor David A. Harris came from Anne Kirkpatrick, Spokane’s new police chief.

She’s been on the job just two weeks but appears to be trying to make Spokane’s beleaguered police department more transparent.

Mayor Dennis Hession said last week he believed it was important to have Kirkpatrick attend the National Association for Civilian Oversight of Law Enforcement convention in Boise to expose her and senior city officials to ways of making police departments more open, accountable and responsive to the public.

When the then-Federal Way, Wash., chief was a finalist for the Spokane job, she said as police chief she wanted to hand out her own discipline – “do my own spanking” – but was open to the notion of civilian oversight.

As Harris, a professor of law and values at the University of Toledo, gave a presentation about the “place of civilian oversight in preventive policing,” Kirkpatrick waved her hand with a question.

“I wanted to know if he felt it was important that citizen review boards only make recommendations, something I’ve advocated,” she later explained. “Does this model hold the chief accountable?”

Harris, who has written two books on police oversight issues, later learned it was Spokane’s chief asking him questions at the kickoff session of the conference that attracted almost 200 attendees from 20 states and 13 foreign countries.

Harris said he shares Kirkpatrick’s philosophy that it should be police chiefs, not civilian review boards, monitors or auditors, who have the final word about disciplining officers.

“I think that’s the right thing,” Harris said. “It’s important for everyone to see the chief has the ultimate responsibility for their discipline, not somebody outside.”

“If the chief doesn’t do what the citizens like, the chief can be held accountable,” he said.

Kirkpatrick isn’t the only police chief attending. Bill McSweeney, chief of the Los Angeles County Sheriffs Department, and Boise’s Police Chief Michael Masterson also were in attendance.

“A new police chief can understand where citizen oversight fits in the big picture of both law enforcement and democracy,” Harris said in an interview after his presentation.

In his remarks, Harris said the concept of “community-oriented policing,” which Spokane has embraced for almost two decades, is being replaced in many cities by “preventive policing.”

The concept, he said, has these five core ideas:

“Police departments need to build “bridges of trust” between police and their communities. Once better levels of trust are established, crime-fighting becomes more of a partnership.

“Departments should make broader use of problem-solving, including close monitoring of trends, to reduce crime.

“Communities should enhance police accountability, both externally with citizen review boards or independent auditors and internally, to assure rank-and-file that a department’s mission and rules are being followed by everyone from the command staff to the newest hire.

“There also should be a change in police leadership styles from the historic “military organization” model where power and control are amassed at the senior staff level to “pushing power down from the chain of command” and making everyone accountable.

“Lastly, communities should work for changes in the “police culture.”

“Some police officers and departments believe if you haven’t worn a badge or a uniform and carried a gun you couldn’t possibly understand police issues and should have nothing to say about it,” Harris said.

“I think, slowly, police departments around the country are waking up to the idea that you have to be open to outside points of view and that they can gain from looking to the public to see how they can improve their organizations,” he said.