SUNDAY, NOV. 20, 2011

Editorial: Scrutiny of police by Justice would help

A U.S. Department of Justice investigation into the policies and practices of the Spokane Police Department could not be more timely.

Mayor Mary Verner requested the review Monday. She will be leaving office soon, as will Chief Anne Kirkpatrick. The conclusion of the Otto Zehm trial, with the conviction of Officer Karl Thompson Jr. on charges of excessive force and lying to investigators, has at least temporarily removed a reason/excuse for not seeking outside intervention.

The trial’s outcome, the city’s handling of the case, and the salute given Thompson by other officers have severely tested citizen faith in the men and women they expect to uphold the law, no matter who is the wrongdoer. A third-party assessment of the Police Department should help re-establish trust shaken not just by Zehm’s death after a confrontation that involved several officers besides Thompson, but other recent incidents as well.

Dogged Spokane Police Guild resistance to an ombudsman with teeth is also troubling to many in the community who believe transparent investigations of citizen complaints would clear the air – and likely exonerate officers in the vast majority of cases. Casting an ombudsman as a mere chip at the collective bargaining table only fans the cynicism.

So often revered organizations become more interested in protecting themselves than the public, or the people in their care.

One example is the ongoing case at Pennsylvania State University and the alleged gross abuse of boys by former defensive football coach Jerry Sandusky. For a decade, awareness of his activities seems to have been tolerated within an athletic machine heretofore renowned for its attention to the education of its players, not just their play on the football field.

Several Catholic dioceses, including that in Spokane, countenanced the sexual abuse of youngsters for decades.

Institutions do a damnably poor job of policing themselves, and the police – the thin blue line – are no different.

Unfortunately, the city’s request for an investigation may have to wait its turn at Justice, which Thursday announced it was undertaking an investigation of the Miami Police Department. In June, another was announced for the Portland Police Bureau. The department has been looking at the Seattle Police Department since March, following a preliminary inquiry initiated last year.

Others are under way in cities from New Jersey to California.

The number of inquiries is probably about more than rogue officers, or units. Departments like Spokane’s, which has dropped most property crime investigations, are overstretched and overstressed. The same goes for the leaders and city councils looking for the next nickel.

All should welcome an independent assessment and whatever guidance one provides.

Guild leadership, for one, says it would welcome a review. The public will be watching – if the Justice Department accepts the city’s invitation.

Perhaps Mayor-elect David Condon’s former employer, Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, can encourage a positive response.

The Spokesman-Review Editorial Board

Members of The Spokesman-Review editorial board help to determine The Spokesman-Review's position on issues of interest to the Inland Northwest. Board members are:

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