June 6, 2012 in City

SPD needs new tack to earn citizenry’s trust

By The Spokesman-Review
 
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On the Web: Find previous columns by Shawn Vestal at spokesman.com/columnists

We’re in the “show me” phase of the city’s relationship with the police department.

So it’s a problem that the interim chief seems to think we’re still in “trust us” mode.

Some good stuff has happened with police accountability in Spokane. The danger – especially for the people leading the department – is thinking that we’ve crossed some sort of finish line.

Having wrapped up some – though not nearly all – of the issues surrounding the Otto Zehm case means we’ll have to see how some of the lessons have stuck. One of these is the fact that the police department must open itself to criticism and show good faith in its self-examination. When someone accuses a cop of wrongdoing, we want to see that the department has investigated it and aired it out.

Scott Stephens, the interim chief, has locked horns with Tim Burns, the city’s police ombudsman, over a complaint filed April 2. The complaint alleges that officers bruised a woman’s arms while handcuffing her in a domestic dispute. It also alleges officers “became physical” with the couple’s stepchildren and repositioned security cameras so residents at the home couldn’t track the officers.

Watch Shawn Vestal talk with KHQ’s Dave Cotton about this column

Stephens decided a full investigation wasn’t necessary. He did so, according to Burns, because the complaint came not from the woman herself but from the woman’s husband.

“I don’t know whether it’s true or false,” Burns said, “but I think we need to at least look at it to determine whether it’s true or false.”

What a radical idea. So … policelike. Stephens wants to classify the case as an “inquiry,” not an “investigation.” This means that instead of officers questioning witnesses and doing other investigative work on the complaint, it will just be reviewed internally.

The mayor will referee this in a meeting Friday.

“Trust us” – that’s been the policy for decades, and it hasn’t worked one bit. It calcified into the bunker mentality that we saw during the Zehm case – the defense of Karl F. Thompson, the courtroom salute, the Facebook page of support for Thompson, that ridiculous video showing the deadly potential of a pop bottle. All that poisonous disregard for the public, to say nothing of Otto Zehm, is still embedded in the department, because it’s still embedded in the hearts of the officers who did those things and who work there still.

“Trust us” doesn’t work because there is a distinct laxity of discipline and an inability or unwillingness to fire officers who repeatedly break the rules. It’s easier to lose your job at a Quizno’s.

Not long ago, the city rehired Detective Jeff Harvey. He’d been fired by then-Chief Anne Kirkpatrick after he was charged with obstructing a Fish and Game officer.

That case ended in a hung jury, and prosecutors didn’t pursue it again. His rehiring reveals the minimum standard we require for a police officer: Not guilty. So long as an officer is not guilty, he’s fit for duty and all the back pay his attorney can squeeze out of taxpayers.

When Kirkpatrick fired Harvey, she cited his long and troubled disciplinary record. She noted that he was a potential “Brady officer” – a cop with a record of dishonesty whose credibility as a witness might be tarnished. On one occasion, he was disciplined for calling in sick – and going hunting. He got a 20-day unpaid disciplinary leave for breaking a suspect’s arm in 1987 and was suspended that same year for harassment.

Harvey’s case is not so far afield from the current debate between Burns and Stephens. According to internal affairs records, Harvey was the subject of 36 citizen complaints in his 24-year career; in eight cases, the complaints were determined to be “founded” or his behavior ruled improper. He gathered two oral reprimands, three written reprimands, three suspensions.

Thirteen of the complaints alleged excessive force. Two were founded – one involved Harvey and several other officers using excessive force against a 17-year-old.

Most of those problems were in the 1980s and ’90s, and Harvey’s nearly quarter-century on the force also includes commendations for bravery; his personnel file is stuffed with effusive letters of thanks, including many from school kids whose classes he visited.

What’s interesting – in terms of how the department has handled complaints in the past, how it handles them now and how it might handle them in the future – is an examination of the record on those “unfounded” complaints. In most of the cases, the record included virtually no information about the complaint and nothing about the rationale for the conclusion. Nothing nearly so complete as the letters from the school kids. One of the complaints included this line: “Unfounded on all allegations as per Chief Bragdon.”

In other words, a citizen complained, and the police chief at the time, Roger Bragdon, overruled them. And that’s all you need to know.

Trust us? Naw. Show me.

Shawn Vestal can be reached at (509) 459-5431 or shawnv@spokesman. com. Follow him on Twitter at @vestal13.

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