A 26-year veteran of the Spokane Police Department will lead the troubled agency, at least for the next few months.
On his first business day as Spokane’s mayor, David Condon appointed Maj. Scott Stephens interim police chief and announced plans to review the department’s use-of-force policies and training.
Stephens replaces former Chief Anne Kirkpatrick, who retired effective Monday, at a time of low morale and deep division within the department.
Former Officer Karl F. Thompson Jr. was convicted in November of using excessive force in the beating and death of unarmed janitor Otto Zehm, then lying about it to investigators. Federal prosecutors called the department’s handling of the case an “extensive cover-up” and the U.S. Justice Department is contemplating whether to open a full investigation of the department’s practices. At least one other Spokane police officer remains under federal investigation for her role in the case of Zehm, who was mistakenly identified as a potential thief.
“Obviously over the last several months, if not the last year, confidence in our Spokane Police Department has been eroded by recent events, and we need to work to restore that,” Condon said just prior to administering Stephens’ oath of office at a news conference at the Nevada Lidgerwood Community Oriented Policing Services office.
Condon said a national search for a permanent chief will continue and that 12 people already have applied. Stephens said he isn’t sure if he’s interested in the job long term.
Stephens was named the interim assistant police chief in the fall by Kirkpatrick after Assistant Chief Jim Nicks went on sick leave. Stephens said a new assistant chief hasn’t been named.
“The No. 1 priority would be working toward restoring and enhancing public safety through trust and confidence in the police department,” he said.
Former police Chief Roger Bragdon said Stephens is a “man of good character.”
“He’s respected by the troops, and he knows policing,” said Bragdon, who was chief prior to Kirkpatrick and served on one of Condon’s transition teams. “I’m confident in the mayor’s direction, and his knowledge of policing. The Police Department will bounce back.”
By choosing Stephens, Condon has opted for an insider to oversee the department and to begin the reforms he promised in his mayoral campaign.
Stephens, as a lieutenant, supervised the department’s major crimes division during the 2006 police examination into Zehm’s death, an investigation that federal officials openly described as flawed. He also oversaw the division when two detectives were called to investigate an alleged rape at a Spokane fire station in 2006. The detectives directed the accused firefighter, who claimed sexual activity with the 16-year-old girl was consensual, to delete photos of the partially naked girl from his cellphone. The detectives claimed they were protecting the girl from inadvertent dissemination of the photos. Critics said the decision destroyed potential evidence.
Condon stressed that Stephens wasn’t chief of the department at the time and that he discussed the issues with Stephens before deciding to name him interim chief. Asked specifically about the firehouse case, Condon said Stephens understands that mistakes were made and that lessons were learned.
Selecting a veteran at least for the short term will help change come faster, Condon said.
“It allows me to start putting in immediate action that may have been more difficult if I brought somebody in from the outside,” Condon said. “Most importantly, he has the plan going forward, and that’s where I’m focusing.”
Bragdon was on hand at the news conference as one of the members of the new Mayor’s Advisory Board on Policing. The other members are former U.S. Attorney Jim McDevitt, former Spokane Police Guild President Cliff Walter, and Nancy Isserlis, former chairwoman of the city’s Ethics Commission.
Condon said he and his new advisory committee will examine the possible use of body cameras. Some departments, including Post Falls and Airway Heights, already require officers to wear cameras. Supporters of using them say they prevent fraudulent claims against police and provide a record of police conduct. They also collect evidence that can assist in prosecuting criminals.
The new mayor also embraced a committee formed by former Mayor Mary Verner to examine how the city handled the Zehm case. The five-member commission also will examine the city’s use-of-force policies and will conclude its work by June. Former Gonzaga University School of Law Dean Marty Martin and former U.S. Attorney Bill Hyslop will lead the Use of Force Commission.
Condon said Assistant City Attorney Rocky Treppiedi, who handled much of the city’s response to a lawsuit filed by the Zehm family, no longer will serve as legal adviser to the Spokane Police Department. Condon said in his mayoral campaign that based on what he knew of the Zehm case, he wouldn’t have confidence in Treppiedi’s legal opinions. He reiterated that position Tuesday.
“Some of those decisions at this point would be difficult for me to stand behind,” Condon said.
Under the City Charter, Treppiedi serves at the pleasure of the city attorney, not the mayor. Condon said Tuesday that City Attorney Howard Delaney will keep his job at least in the short term. Condon said he will re-evaluate his team of administrators currently in place at the end of 120 days.
Spokane County Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich offered to take the job of interim police chief and has asked city leaders to consider combining forces, potentially by the city contracting with his office as Spokane Valley currently does.
Knezovich said Tuesday his offer was made in large part because the department had vacancies both in chief and assistant chief. He said Stephens “seems to be respected within the agency.”
Condon said consolidation will be considered, though multiple models will be examined. His timeline for how long it will take to hire a new chief – “a few to several months” – may not leave enough time to implement such a plan, at least not before a new chief is hired.