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New police oversight in works

Wed., Jan. 31, 2007

A new model for citizen oversight of police in Spokane is needed and on the way, Police Chief Anne Kirkpatrick told an audience Tuesday night as they flooded her with questions and issues about misconduct.

When she was hired as chief only four months ago, Kirkpatrick said she knew the issues of police accountability and citizen oversight “were huge topics in this community because of the high-profile cases that had occurred.”

One of those cases was the death of Otto Zehm, the mentally ill janitor who was beaten by police. Officers erroneously believed he was a robbery suspect when they confronted him in a convenience store last March.

Kirkpatrick, speaking on a public panel at Gonzaga Law School, said pending litigation prevents her from discussing whether officers in the Zehm incident violated the law or regulations.

The chief said she is reviewing the department’s regulations for officers dealing with mentally ill people and may form a crisis intervention team for such cases.

But the question of whether police misconduct occurred is now in the hands of FBI agents and Justice Department prosecutors who will decide if Zehm’s civil rights were violated or excessive force was used.

“This is not a Spokane police case,” Kirkpatrick said. “The outcome of the Otto Zehm case will be the result of the (investigation) by the FBI.”

Another high-profile case, which involved an off-duty police lieutenant who intervened when a citizen attempted to arrest her children, made it clear to Kirkpatrick that an existing Citizens Review Committee wasn’t working.

When she took the case to the committee, which hadn’t met in a decade, Kirkpatrick was told the police oversight body wasn’t empowered to do anything, or even hear the citizen’s complaint, because the discipline had been completed.

Kirkpatrick said she wanted to take the case to the Citizens Review Committee to show the public that the case against Lt. Judi Carl was thoroughly investigated “and so you could see we didn’t do a cover-up.”

Thwarted by that, the chief said she became convinced the current system “wasn’t serving your needs and it wasn’t serving my needs.”

The chief has now hired Sam Pailca, the director of the Seattle Police Department’s Office of Professional Accountability and a nationally recognized expert on the topic, to come up with various models for improved citizen oversight in Spokane.

Pailca attended the forum, sponsored by the American Civil Liberties Union, the Spokane League of Women Voters and the Spokane Peace and Justice Action League.

In brief comments to the audience, Pailca said legislative changes, probably by a City Council ordinance, may be required as part of any new citizens police accountability board.

“A model that may be good in Seattle may not be good in Spokane,” Kirkpatrick said.

“I am in perfect agreement and supportive of citizen oversight in some form,” the chief said. But re-emphasizing what she said last summer when she was a candidate for the job, Kirkpatrick repeated that the police chief still must retain the exclusive power to fire or discipline an officer for misconduct, and the department must be able to investigate complaints.

Kirkpatrick said that since becoming chief, she has fired one officer for misconduct, suspended three others and written letters of reprimand against two more.

Citizen oversight – such as by the Spokane County Civil Service Commission, which recently overturned a detective’s firing by the sheriff – tends to be less punitive, Kirkpatrick told the near-capacity audience.

“Citizens in the end will not be as hard as a strict chief or a strict sheriff,” she said.

In developing a better oversight system, the chief said she will seek public comment at two forums on “police accountability and citizen oversight.” The first forum will be held one week from today at 6 p.m. at the City Hall Council Chambers.

The second will be held at 6 p.m. Feb. 13 at the Northeast Community Center, 4001 N. Cook.

The chief also was asked questions about racial profiling but received support from fellow panelist Rick Mendoza, a longtime member of the Police Advisory Committee, which advises the department on race-related issues.

V. Anne Smith, the president of the Spokane chapter of the NAACP, spoke from the audience and said she doesn’t believe racial profiling by Spokane police is the problem it was during the mid-1990s. “I’m not telling you there aren’t still some instances,” she added.

Journalist Tim Connor, also a member of the panel, said the Spokane Police Department historically has “stonewalled citizens’ complaints” and is “part of a culture of cover-up and denial rooted in Spokane’s City Hall.”

Connor said Zehm’s death last year, before Kirkpatrick’s arrival, demonstrated a “perfect collapse of the Police Department’s credibility.”

The Police Department and its leaders at the time were not contrite and created doubts about what happened, Connor said.

Department leaders at the time said Zehm lunged at an officer, but later produced video surveillance tapes showing that he didn’t.

Then-Acting Chief Jim Nicks, whom Kirkpatrick recently named as her assistant chief, was in the audience, pursing his lips and looking a bit red-faced as Connor made his comments.

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