November 16, 2011 in City

Union leaders vow openness

City seeking federal probe of department practices
By The Spokesman-Review

Spokane Police Department union leaders said Tuesday they’re happy to cooperate with a possible federal investigation of the department and have no concerns about what it may find.

“We know that we need the community to believe in us again, and that’s why we know this is a good thing,” said Lt. Joe Walker, president of the 13-member Spokane Police Lieutenants and Captains Association.

Walker and Detective Ernie Wuthrich, president of the Spokane Police Guild, said they don’t expect individual resistance within the department if the U.S. Justice Department launches a “pattern and practice” investigation of Spokane police. Mayor Mary Verner said Monday she would request such a probe in the wake of the Nov. 2 conviction of Officer Karl F. Thompson Jr. for using excessive force on unarmed janitor Otto Zehm in 2006 and lying to cover up his actions.

No one has anything to hide, the union officers said.

“We see ourselves as the community’s team, and we want them to be proud of their team, and unfortunately lately we know what’s being said and it hurts us,” Walker said. “We all have families and we’re also part of this community. We don’t want to see the bad guys win – the burglars, the crooks.”

Wuthrich said the 263-member Police Guild has long supported improved transparency and accountability within the department.

A city ordinance granting the police ombudsman the power to investigate the department independently was repealed by the City Council last month after a mediator ruled the city did not consult the Police Guild before approving the change. But Wuthrich said the guild’s issue was not with the ordinance, only with how it was implemented.

“That’s all we wanted was to follow the proper process,” he said. “We’re not closed-minded as far as changes to the ombudsman ordinance.”

But neither Walker nor Wuthrich said they’re ready to support independent oversight for the ombudsman until a number of issues are discussed.

“We need to be careful about how we put that language together so that it protects the integrity of all investigations,” Wuthrich said. “When you start opening the door for the ombudsman to have independent investigative authority, what are you really talking about? … That needs to be defined by the city and guild.”

Walker said he’s hopeful a federal investigation will provide a new forum for suggestions from within the department.

“In the 23 years I’ve been here I’ve heard a lot of good ideas from a lot of people within the department. Sometimes those ideas make it all the way up to where they need to go and sometimes they don’t,” he said. “Maybe this is an avenue to clear some of those paths.”

The union leaders’ press conference came the same day Thompson submitted his resignation instead of participating in a disciplinary hearing regarding his felony convictions.

About 50 officers saluted Thompson as he was taken into federal custody Nov. 4, prompting an apology from Verner and police Chief Anne Kirkpatrick.

Wuthrich said Tuesday he couldn’t comment on the salute because he wasn’t there. “I can’t speak for the folks who were there. I’m not going to condemn what occurred there because I don’t have any inside knowledge of what happened there,” he said.

Kirkpatrick, who is retiring effective Jan. 2, said this week that leadership in the Police Guild would need to change before the department’s rank and file can undergo a cultural change. Wuthrich said he has no response to her comment.

“I don’t have a personal issue with the chief, so I’m not going to say anything ornery to her,” he said. “I wish her the best in her retirement.”

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