Spokane Mayor Mary Verner will ask federal authorities to launch a full investigation of the Spokane Police Department’s operations following years of divisive debate over the agency’s tactics, training and accountability.
The unprecedented move comes less than two weeks after a federal jury convicted a veteran Spokane officer of excessive force and lying to investigators in the fatal March 18, 2006 confrontation with Otto Zehm, the unarmed janitor mistakenly identified as a theft suspect. City Hall has insisted for years that its officers did nothing wrong and argued that Zehm was responsible for his own beating and death.
“The public must trust its law enforcement institutions,” Verner said in prepared remarks. “This outside view can help identify our faults and rebuild trust.”
Verner declined further comment tonight at City Hall.
U.S. Attorney Mike Ormsby also declined comment, suggesting a review may already have begun. “We just don’t comment about ongoing investigations,” he said this evening.
The type of Justice Department investigation being sought is known as a “pattern and practice” probe. It’s considered a civil rather than a criminal investigation and generally leads to recommended changes to departmental operations such as training and discipline that federal authorities can seek to enforce through court orders if city leaders refuse.
Federal prosecutors already were contemplating a full departmental investigation, which requires Justice Department approval in Washington, D.C. And, some city leaders had been quietly discussing the option for years, said retiring Police Chief Anne Kirkpatrick.
“In no way did I want to be a part of commenting or taint the criminal matter in any way,” She said. “This is a different issue. I have been supportive of this for a long time. It’s a good department, but it needs support.”
To the extent she can, Kirkpatrick said she will assist federal authorities and she expects a “majority” of her department’s officers will, as well.
“But the current (Police Guild) leadership absolutely will not,” she said. “The majority of the members of the guild are just honest, hard working cops who everybody wants to show up at their mother’s home if they need help. The majority will be OK with it, because they are not threatened by it.
“But when you talk about guild leadership,” she continued, “that’s where you need to see the focus.”
The current guild president is Ernie Wuthrich, who keeps two vice presidents. One of the former vice presidents was Detective Jeff Harvey, who was fired for what Kirkpatrick called a pattern of excessive force before being exonerated on an obstruction charge earlier this year. Officer Ray Harding was also voted out of the other vice president position by the guild, Kirkpatrick said.
The two new vice presidents are currently Officer John Gately, who attended every day of Thompson’s trial and was by his side even outside of trial, and Officer Tim Moses, who required a letter of immunity from the DOJ before he would testify about his previous grand jury testimony incriminating Thompson.
When Moses did take the witness stand, he blamed the FBI for intimidating him into testifying under oath to a grand jury that Thompson had struck Zehm in the head with a baton.
“If you want true culture change, you look to your leaders and see who is being elected,” Kirkpatrick said. “That will be your weather vane of the cultural mindset. The silent majority needs to stand up and take back the voice and leadership of who they really are.”
Detective Ernie Wuthrich, president of the Spokane Police Guild, said he would make his official comment today after consulting with his membership.
“I’ve got an answer in mind. It’s not what the chief wants, probably,” Wuthrich said. “But I want to talk it over with the guys and make sure I say what is appropriate for the membership without popping off.”
In response to Kirkpatrick’s criticisms of the guild leadership, Wuthrich said: “I think the chief is still upset over her loss in court with the Jay Mehring case and she has been saying things based on emotion and not in fact. I feel sorry for her in that respect.”
Former U.S. Attorney Jim McDevitt confirmed that he will be a part of Condon’s transition team.
“It’s no secret that I certainly was a supporter of David’s and have known him for a long time,” McDevitt said. “He’s going to have a full plate. I would certainly be willing to step forward and assist in any way I can. I would help anybody with respect to trying to restore mutual respect between the department and the citizens.”
Breean Beggs, who represents Ann Zehm in a companion civil suit against the city, said Verner may be a political victim of her own decision.
“I have no idea why they waited until now to announce it because it’s the news the citizens of Spokane have been waiting for,” Beggs said. “From the night this happened (to Zehm), top city officials refused to acknowledge the problems that were obvious to everyone. If top city leadership had said there is a problem that needs to be fixed, then voters wouldn’t feel they were going crazy. When they see, hear and read about all the problems in the city … it doesn’t add up. That’s why they wanted change.”
Legally, Beggs said he was puzzled by the city’s call to delay announcing the federal review until after Thompson’s criminal trial ended.
“The pattern and practice investigation has very little to do with one particular case,” Beggs said. “I certainly welcome the news. It probably is going to take the federal government to use its power to get us where we need to be.”
City Administrator Ted Danek said there have been “informal discussions” about making such a request over the last few years.
“Until the criminal case concluded we didn’t think it would be proper to ask,” he said.
Reaction among city council members, some of whom like Verner lost re-election bids last week in part because of community outrage over the city’s handling of the Zehm case, was supportive.
Councilman Richard Rush said he’s “delighted she took the step,” referring to Verner’s request to the Justice Department. Asked if the request should have come sooner: “We’re here now. We can’t go back and change it.”
Councilman Jon Snyder said: “I fully support it. I think it’s a great step.”
Councilman Bob Apple, whose being forced out by term limits, said it’s over due.
“We should have done it a long time ago,” Apple said outside city council chambers tonight. “This is what I wanted for years.”
Councilwoman Nancy McLaughlin called herself “100 percent supportive” of the request and noted that Kirkpatrick implemented new policies within the department earlier in her tenure.
“It’s important to have an outside look to make sure their policies have been implemented in the way they were designed to be,” McLaughlin said.
According to the Justice Department, “pattern and practice” investigations attempt to determine whether bad conduct is restricted to one officer or many.
Earlier this year, the Justice Department launched a “pattern and practice” probe in addition to a criminal investigation into the Seattle Police Department after a string of incidents, including the shooting in August, 2010, of First Nations woodcarver John T. Williams.
Assistant U.S. Attorney General Thomas E. Perez described in August this year a similar probe looking into several communities in Los Angeles County. The reviews are conducted by the Civil Rights Division’s Special Litigation Section, which looks for “systemic problems in a police department … that result in the violation of people’s basic rights.”
“Over the last 15 years, the Division has brought in teams of seasoned attorneys, staff and law enforcement experts to work collaboratively with police departments and communities across the country … that accomplish three goals: 1) reduce crime, 2) protect the rule of law, and 3) enhance public confidence in law enforcement,” Perez said, according to comments posted on the DOJ website. “These goals are not mutually exclusive. They go hand in hand.”
For example, the section, which Perez oversees, obtained two consent decrees to adress systemic misconduct in municipal police departments in Pittsburgh and Steubenville, Ohio.
The decrees require the police departments to implement the reforms, including training, supervising, and disciplining officers and implementing systems to receive, investigate, and respond to civilian complaints of misconduct, according to the DOJ.
The civil reviews currently are investigating “systemic problems” in other law enforcement agencies across the country following allegations of excessive force, false arrest, discriminatory harassment, stops, searches or arrests, and retaliation against persons alleging misconduct, according to the DOJ.
The reviews _ which employ nationally renown experts _ include interviews with police officials and witnesses of alleged wrongdoing. The teams go through records and evaluate departmental practices. If problems are found, they work to fix them, according to the DOJ.