The Spokane Police Department lacks a policy specifically addressing strip searches of suspects who aren’t in a jail or prison – a practice that a federal judge has recently signaled may be unconstitutional.
Police Chief Anne Kirkpatrick told the Spokane City Council’s Public Safety Committee on Monday that she plans to revise the department’s policy guidelines – including the strip-search practices.
Kirkpatrick, who has been chief for seven months, reviewed the department’s policy at the request of City Councilwoman Mary Verner, a mayoral candidate who’d expressed concern about a current civil rights case before U.S. District Judge Robert Whaley.
In a March 22 order, Whaley appointed a Center for Justice attorney for John Burton, an indigent man who sued the Spokane Police Department and one of its detectives last year for allegedly violating his civil rights after he was strip-searched without a warrant in a March 10, 2005, drug sting in the West Central neighborhood. The judge said Burton has a “high likelihood of success on the merits.” The city has countersued Burton for “malicious prosecution.”
The Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has ruled that it’s illegal to strip-search a suspect without a warrant outside of a jail or prison, according to Burton’s lawyer, Breean Beggs.
In court documents, the city admits that Burton was searched for weapons and drugs during the arrest but contends his arrest was lawful and the officers involved are immune from prosecution. Although no drugs were found on Burton that day, he was arrested on two counts of delivery of a controlled substance for two previous incidents on Feb. 24 and March 1, 2000, when he was found with drugs.
Kirkpatrick said she could not address the specifics of the Burton case and to do so would require an executive session of the council’s three-member Public Safety Committee.
But the police chief said her department’s current search policy is “very generic” and is “not specific on strip-searches.” She distributed a copy of the department’s policy and a far more detailed model policy developed by the Law Enforcement Policy Center of the International Association of Chiefs of Police.
Spokane patrol officers don’t routinely strip-search suspects, but the undercover drug unit – which was involved in Burton’s strip-search – is “different,” Assistant Police Chief Jim Nicks told the elected officials.
The international chiefs of police model policy says some strip searches and body cavity searches may be necessary, but should only be conducted in deference for human dignity and in accordance with procedural guidelines. The guidelines include obtaining an affidavit for a search warrant, having a doctor or other medical professional conduct any body cavity search, and limiting such searches to a detention facility or other dedicated room.
Strip-searching prisoners in the field “shall be conducted only in the rarest of circumstances … where the life of officers or others may be placed at risk, and only in privacy with the explicit approval of a supervisory officer,” the model policy says.
Councilman Bob Apple asked Kirkpatrick whether she would agree to post the Spokane Police Department’s “Policies and Procedures Manual” on the Web for better public access.
Some of the department’s undercover and investigative procedures are confidential, but “to whatever extent the public has a right (to the policy documents), we can do that,” Kirkpatrick said.