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Spokane Police Guild distorted vote on chief

WEDNESDAY, APRIL 28, 2010

Document shows about 80 members didn’t cast ballots

The extent of dissatisfaction with Spokane police Chief Anne Kirkpatrick among the rank and file may not be as bad as union leaders suggest.

A document obtained by The Spokesman-Review shows Spokane Police Guild leaders misrepresented the results of a recent no-confidence vote against Kirkpatrick and Assistant Chief Jim Nicks. Of the 276 guild members, 112 voted no confidence in the department’s leadership, or fewer than half.

Guild President Ernie Wuthrich insisted earlier this month that more than half of the union’s members had cast no-confidence votes against the chief, not just half of the members who actually cast ballots. Wuthrich has refused to disclose the exact results of the no-confidence vote, saying it’s against union procedure.

But a printed copy of information about the vote that appeared in a private section of the guild’s website was provided to The Spokesman-Review this week. While it shows a strong majority of those who voted approved the no-confidence measure, about 80 members abstained or didn’t vote. The Web page also includes a threat that any member who divulges the tally could face disciplinary measures.

Kirkpatrick and some Spokane City Council members expressed doubt from the beginning that a majority of the union’s membership had lost confidence in the department’s leadership.

The vote, which was conducted in March, was 112 votes of “no confidence in the leadership and decision making abilities of the chief’s office” to 79 votes of confidence, according to the printout. Human Resources Director Dave Chandler said the city’s most recent count of guild membership was 276. That would make a majority of the membership 139.

Guild Vice President Jeff Harvey said Tuesday that the results clearly represented a majority of the guild. The vote was conducted by mail and members had several days to return their ballots, Harvey said. “Everybody in the membership had an opportunity to vote,” Harvey said.

Guild leadership repeatedly refused to release the tally to the media, Kirkpatrick, Spokane Mayor Mary Verner and others, and union officials threatened to take “legal measures” against guild members who revealed the final count.

“Ernie also stated if the numbers get to the chief or the press we will investigate the matter and take appropriate legal measures against the member found to have released the information,” according to a message on the union website written by Guild Secretary Ty Snider.

Wuthrich, a detective, said Tuesday that he would not comment about the results unless the source of the vote’s numbers was disclosed.

Kirkpatrick said the true tally, coupled with support from members of the three other unions within the department, indicate that she maintains support from the rank and file.

“Now I know why they hid their numbers,” Kirkpatrick said.

The Lieutenants and Captains Association and the police employees of the Managerial and Professional Association wrote Kirkpatrick letters of support.

Kirkpatrick said she believes the Police Guild vote was done “with malice,” aimed at her announcement that she would apply for the Seattle police chief position. This week, she was named as one of 11 finalists for the job.

But she said the vote indicates that “there’s a cultural divide in the department.” That divide is about transparency, standards, deployment of resources and other changes, she said.

“It matters to me that I have always had a reputation among the rank and file as the type of leader officers wanted to work for,” she said.

Harvey said the vote isn’t about change or standards; it’s about Kirkpatrick not properly following rules and labor laws when officers are disciplined.

“We have no problem with the expectation of high conduct,” Harvey said.

Guild leaders point out that an officer who was accused of rape and who used a department-issued cell phone to photograph a woman’s breasts was fired even though charges hadn’t been filed. He was given his job back by a civilian arbitrator.

They also note that Detective Jay Mehring was placed on unpaid leave after he allegedly threatened his estranged wife. A jury acquitted him, and Mehring kept his job and earned back pay. In that case Superior Court Judge Michael Price chastised Kirkpatrick for disciplining Mehring before his criminal charges had been resolved, saying her decision “just frankly baffles me,” and was “offensive.”

The chief has said her discipline is made with legal advice and “not made in a vacuum.”

Kirkpatrick said she believes the vote was designed to hurt Nicks’ chances of becoming the next chief if she leaves.

Asked if the recent revelation that Nicks likely will testify against Officer Karl F. Thompson in an upcoming federal trial also affected the guild’s decision, Kirkpatrick said “absolutely.”

Thompson is accused of using excessive force against Otto Zehm, a Spokane resident who had schizophrenia and died after a confrontation with police in 2006.

Guild officials say the Zehm case was not related to the vote and note that the federal filing announcing Nicks would testify wasn’t filed until weeks after ballots were counted.

That 74-page federal filing notes that Thompson was a candidate for the chief’s job Kirkpatrick landed and that officers circulated petitions in support of hiring Thompson.

Harvey said police leadership created a climate within the department that discouraged officers from voting.

“There were some people that were afraid to vote,” Harvey said.

He pointed to a senior staff meeting from Feb. 24. Minutes from the meeting show that Kirkpatrick discussed the pending union vote and encouraged members to participate.

“Chief Kirkpatrick stated that she thinks this is an opportunity for the department to decide, ‘What our values are’ and ‘Do we stand behind the leadership values of this department,’ ” the minutes say. “Chief Kirkpatrick advised that at the senior staff retreat, senior staff agreed that they are behind administration. Chief Kirkpatrick stated that this is a time to step up and be counted.”

Kirkpatrick said she is puzzled at the intimidation accusation because leadership has no way of knowing how individuals voted in a union-conducted mail-in vote.

If she doesn’t get the Seattle job, Kirkpatrick said her plan “right now” is to stay in Spokane.

“I’m hopeful that if I choose to stay, that we’ll have a new tone within the department,” Kirkpatrick said.

City leaders say they continue to support Kirkpatrick.

Some also said they were concerned with the threat that was issued to union members designed to keep the vote tally secret.

“The fact that there is intimidation involved speaks for itself,” said City Council President Joe Shogan.

Staff writer Meghann M. Cuniff contributed to this report.


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