Verner seeks federal probe
Outgoing mayor asks Justice Department for ‘pattern and practice’ inquiry of police
The entire Spokane Police Department could soon be under full federal investigation.
Outgoing Mayor Mary Verner announced Monday she will ask the U.S. Justice Department to launch a “pattern and practice” investigation of the department, which federal prosecutors described earlier this month as participating in an “an extensive cover-up” of the fatal 2006 police confrontation with unarmed janitor Otto Zehm. A jury on Nov. 2 convicted Officer Karl F. Thompson Jr. of using excessive force on Zehm and lying to cover up his actions.
“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 Monday at City Hall.
Verner’s announcement, coupled with promised change from Mayor-elect David Condon, could bring sweeping change to a department that has resisted reforms pushed by citizens and political leaders for years. Condon is expected to announce today that the U.S. attorney who agreed to pursue charges against Thompson, James McDevitt, is being considered for his transition team.
U.S. Attorney Mike Ormsby, who could be key to Justice Department approval of Verner’s request, declined comment. “We just don’t comment about ongoing investigations,” he said Monday evening.
But change may not be easy. Despite assurances from Spokane Police Guild leaders that they welcome a potential federal review, police Chief Anne Kirkpatrick suggested Monday that the union leadership may be uncooperative.
Verner won a big primary election victory, but her support eroded significantly over the fall as court documents filed in preparation for Thompson’s trial became public, revealing troubling contradictions to the city’s longstanding position that its officers did nothing wrong.
Breean Beggs, who represents Zehm’s mother in a civil suit against the city, said Verner may be a political victim of her own decision to avoid discussing the federal review until after Thompson’s trial.
“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,” said Beggs, who contributed to Verner’s campaign. “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.”
Kirkpatrick, who will retire Jan. 2, said she’s been in discussions with federal authorities about this type of probe “for years.”
“In no way did I want to be a part of commenting or taint the criminal matter in any way,” she said in explaining why she didn’t acknowledge the pending request for federal review. “This is a different issue. It’s a good department, but it needs support.”
Officer Tim Moses, vice president of the Spokane Police Guild, said the department “welcomes this DOJ review, unconditionally. The Office of the Police Ombudsman has not discovered the ‘grand conspiracies,’ ” Moses wrote in an email. “We know the DOJ will find exactly what we expect they will … a well trained and disciplined police department that works under very adverse conditions to serve its citizens.”
Under a “pattern and practice” probe, the Justice Department pursues a civil rather than a criminal investigation that 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.
To the extent she can, Kirkpatrick said she will assist federal authorities and she expects a “majority” of her department’s nearly 300 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.”
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.”
Kirkpatrick suggested that no changes will occur until frontline officers change the leadership of the guild. She noted the guild’s two vice presidents are Officer John Gately, who was at Thompson’s side throughout the trial, and Moses, who required a letter of immunity from the Justice Department before he would testify about his previous grand jury testimony incriminating Thompson.
“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.”
But in an email, Moses said he recalls Kirkpatrick supporting his guild promotion.
If “you really want to find someone to point the finger at for a lack of direction … deficiency of faith in the police … or issues with public trust … remember, we were under Kirkpatrick’s administration and guidance the past five years,” he wrote in part. “Put the blame where it belongs.”