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Police review recommends changes

Tue., Jan. 9, 2007

After a series of high-profile controversies involving the Spokane Police Department, a review by a leading law enforcement group recommends several changes – including better training to protect the lives of combative suspects kept in a prone position by officers.

That scenario preceded the death last March of Otto Zehm, a mentally ill Spokane janitor who scuffled with several officers and died after he was hog-tied and placed on his stomach for 16 minutes inside a North Side convenience store.

The FBI and Spokane County Prosecutor’s Office are investigating Zehm’s death, which sparked outrage in the community.

The long-awaited Washington Association of Sheriffs & Police Chiefs (WASPC) report was forwarded to Police Chief Anne Kirkpatrick last week and distributed to the public Monday after a Jan. 5 public records request by The Spokesman-Review. The review was requested by Mayor Dennis Hession last summer.

The report says there “appears to be a difference in current training versus prior training as to how (to) best protect the life of a combative prisoner once hobbled and/or secured in the prone position. It is recommended the differences in training practices be reconciled and clarified for future training.”

Changes in that policy will be brought to the Police Department during required quarterly officer training in April, said Spokane Police Cpl. Tom Lee.

An additional review of the Zehm case by another outside group, Police Practices Consulting LLC of Lexington, Ky., is expected later this year, Hession’s office said Monday. The consultant wanted to wait for the completion of all other outside investigations.

WASPC’s charter was to look broadly at police procedures, practices, training and communication in light of concerns raised by the Zehm death and by the case of Daniel Ross, the firefighter whose digital photos of a firehouse tryst with a 16-year-old girl were ordered deleted by police detectives last year.

The review appears to focus more on the scenario involving Zehm.

WASPC applauded the city for allowing an outside review, saying “the act of being scrutinized … comes from a strong desire for excellence and a willingness to improve performance and service.”

Many of WASPC’s recommendations involved issues that Police Chief Anne Kirkpatrick has already begun to address, including bringing back Crime Check, a 24-hour non-emergency number for law enforcement; re-establishing a Crisis Intervention Team – a group of officers specially trained to interact with citizens affected by mental illness; hiring a consultant to revise the department’s Citizens Review Commission; and a newly structured leadership training program for all supervisors.

She said the new report was a “great road map” for her as she reorganizes the department.

The report outlines Spokane’s efforts to establish a citizen oversight system but sidesteps specific recommendations for a new system, which Kirkpatrick has said she will establish. But the report suggested several ways to monitor police misconduct internally by establishing a “formal early warning system” to identify officers who abuse time off, who are the subjects of frequent citizen complaints or who use force on suspects more often than is normal.

“The Spokane Police Department’s size makes the practice of informally tracking potential problem employees by memory a concern,” the report noted.

The report also suggests using “performance audits” to track use of force, injuries to prisoners, arrests made for resisting or obstructing an officer, firearm discharges, criminal and civil claims, vehicle pursuits, automobile accidents and other problems.

Among the report’s other recommendations:

“Review and update the department’s Investigative Manual, dated 1998, and revise the department’s policies and procedures, some of which are at least 13 years old.

“Improve the department’s Records Division, including centralizing its public disclosure request system.

“Beef up the security of the evidence vault where money and narcotics are stored. During the WASPC inspection, the vault was open and the key to the cabinets where the money was stored was located on a hook inside the vault, “eliminating any additional security for the high value items stored in the vault,” the report says.

“Improve partnerships between the Police Department and City Hall. Years of budget cuts “may have contributed to what appears to be an atmosphere of tension and/or frustration between the City Hall and the Police Department,” the report says.

“Ban certain investigative practices. Group interviews of officers and “pre-interviews” before recorded statements should be prohibited.

“Launch a facilities study for the Spokane Police Department because current facility use is significantly different than the original building purpose.

The WASPC report praised many Police Department programs, including its volunteer services and police training programs run in conjunction with the Washington State Criminal Justice Training Commission.

Members of the review team included Garry Anderson, WASPC’s management services coordinator and a retired Renton police chief; Penny Bartley of the Renton Police Department; Des Moines Police Chief Roger Baker; Sumner Police Chief Colleen Wilson; Bellevue Police Chief Jim Montgomery; and Tom Corzine, WASPC deputy director and a retired deputy chief of Bellingham’s police department.

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