The Spokane Police Department’s battered reputation may have hurt the city’s ability to win public support for new taxes, some elected leaders say.
Earlier this month, voters rejected an $18.5 million property tax, most of which would have paid for a new police evidence building. The measure received 51 percent support but needed a 60 percent supermajority.
“It became quite obvious that there was a very strong feeling toward the Police Department,” said Spokane City Councilman Steve Corker, noting the death of Otto Zehm and the shooting of Shonto Pete by an off-duty police officer.
The Spokane Police Department has faced heavy criticism since Zehm, a mentally ill Spokane resident, died in police custody in 2006. The criticism intensified the next year after an intoxicated Officer Jay Olsen shot Spokane resident Shonto Pete in Peaceful Valley. Olsen was found not guilty this month on charges related to the shooting.
Corker said the March vote suggests city leaders shouldn’t combine police needs with a fire bond expected to go to voters later this year.
He and other officials also say it might be worth asking voters for the money needed for an animal control shelter separately. About $4 million of the March tax proposal would have paid the startup costs for the city to transfer animal control duties to the Spokane County Regional Animal Protection Service.
“We should consider putting (the shelter money) on the ballot by itself to clarify what the citizens think,” Councilwoman Nancy McLaughlin said.
She said police Chief Anne Kirkpatrick is working to address the department’s image problem by holding officers to high standards. She noted that the department recommended charges against Olsen and that Kirkpatrick has opened an internal investigation related to the shooting.
“We need to fix the perception problem,” McLaughlin said. “I know that Chief Anne will be honest and thorough and fair.”
Meanwhile, Kirkpatrick said she is opposed to her department taking over animal control duties.
City Councilman Bob Apple said this week that police may be needed to handle dangerous dogs because the city doesn’t have the money to expand the shelter.
“I would not like that. The reason for it is I have had that role when I was the chief of police of Ellensburg,” Kirkpatrick said. “It’s not an area of function I wish for the Police Department to take on.”
City leaders have debated for years how to handle animal control. Spokane contracts with the nonprofit organization SpokAnimal C.A.R.E., but that group has said it no longer wants to perform the function.
The City Council last year decided to contract with the county starting in 2010. But to move forward on the deal, the city needs $4.2 million to expand SCRAPS’ shelter on Flora Road and for other startup costs.
Mayor Mary Verner has said the city’s options include asking voters again for the money or downgrading the city’s animal control services. In an interview last week, Verner said a likely factor in the bond’s failure was that it was on the same ballot as much larger tax proposals from Spokane Public Schools.
If voters are asked again, she said, she would “give ourselves more time and possibly separate out animal control.”
“Had there been a more vigorous campaign, a better and longer opportunity to educate the community, maybe it would have passed,” Verner said.