More citizens alleged misconduct by Spokane Police Department employees last year than the previous four years, but the number of complaints that resulted in discipline decreased.
Police leaders attribute the uptick in complaints to the hiring of the police ombudsman. Last year was Tim Burns’ first full year on the job.
“We expected to get a wave of complaints,” Lt. Craig Meidl said. “It wasn’t quite as dramatic as we anticipated.”
Boise experienced a surge in complaints when the city established a police ombudsman office in 1999, Meidl said.
Meidl, who supervises the department’s internal affairs unit, presented the final numbers to the city of Spokane Public Safety Committee on Monday.
The data offers a glimpse at investigations that are otherwise confidential.
City Councilwoman Nancy McLaughlin asked Meidl why only about 10 percent of the complaints resulted in discipline. Meidl said he didn’t want to describe complaints as “frivolous,” but said some of them had already been investigated.
Meidl said the complaints could include something like “I was handcuffed with my hands behind my back, and that offended me.”
Also, eight complaints were filed by two individuals. Each involved personal contact with a police officer.
Five were filed by a “self-admitted constitutionalist” who doesn’t recognize local authority, Meidl said.
The department averages 5.9 complaints per 10,000 contacts, and 4.5 excessive force complaints per 100 officers. The national average is 6.6 excessive force complaints per 100 officers, Meidl said.
Of the 79 internal probes in 2010, 68 were generated by citizen complaints and 11 were from fellow employees. In 2009, 56 citizens and 20 police employees filed complaints. In 2008, it was 43 and 17.
Burns, the ombudsman, is charged with reviewing each investigation to see if it’s timely, thorough and complete. He approved all but two last year.
Eight complaints last year resulted in discipline against employees, including one termination and three suspensions. That’s a drop from 20 disciplinary actions in 2009, 17 in 2008 and 20 in 2007.
Twenty-nine complaints last year concerned officer demeanor, 13 alleged excessive force, 20 centered on lack of or inadequate response and 20 referenced policy violations.
Of the eight complaints ruled valid, four were for lack of or inadequate response, two referenced conduct unbecoming, one concerned crime and another referenced demeanor.
The probes resulted in one employee’s termination. Three others were suspended, one received a letter of reprimand and another retired or resigned. Two others were counseled.
The department’s internal affairs division investigates all complaints and use of force by police employees. Investigators recorded 99 incidents of force by police last year, an increase from the prior two years but a drop from 2006, when 119 incidents were documented.
Collisions involving Spokane police cars also have dropped, but the number of intentional collisions resulting from pursuits jumped to 17 from 10 in both 2009 and 2008.
Twenty-five other collisions were deemed preventable and 16 were nonpreventable.
Chief Anne Kirkpatrick said discipline depends on an employee’s tenure and history of problems. A 15-year veteran with three preventable collisions will be treated differently than a 2-year officer who also has three preventable accidents.
The numbers include minor, one-car collisions such as dinging a pole, Meidl said. The data also includes multiple collisions in one incident, including a chase on the South Hill last August that ended with an accused OxyContin robber shooting himself in his car.
Meidl said fleeing suspects are learning how to avoid the police pursuit immobilization technique, which involves a police cruiser nudging the back of the suspect’s vehicle to force it into a spin that stops the vehicle.
Assistant Chief Jim Nicks said the department is revamping its pursuit policy regarding when officers can pursue fleeing suspects. He said the goal is not necessarily to reduce pursuits, but to make them safer.