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Thu., June 14, 2012

Editorial: City needs third-party assessment of police

Spokane Mayor David Condon has echoed former Mayor Mary Verner’s call for a federal “pattern and practice” investigation of the Spokane Police Department in an effort to restore citizen trust in the wake of the Otto Zehm case and others. The U.S. Justice Department is reportedly conducting 18 to 20 of these reviews, with targets including the police departments in Seattle and Portland.

Resources might be stretched at this point, but we hope the feds will eventually conduct a departmentwide review in Spokane, rather than limiting it to the Zehm case.

City Council President Ben Stuckart put it well when he said, “I don’t think we as a community can say, ‘Oh, Thompson got convicted and so the entire episode is closed,’ ” Stuckart said. “The full truth is going to have to come out to heal.”

Even in the Zehm case, it took the involvement of the FBI before any charges were brought. A third-party assessment is the only kind that will carry credibility, which is also why the ombudsman’s office needs independent investigatory authority.

The lesson Spokane can learn from Seattle is that once you’ve called for such a probe, you can’t haggle over the results.

Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn is battling the U.S. Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division over its sweeping proposals for reform after a scathing review of the police department’s use of force. The feds found extensive examples of police officers hauling out their batons and flashlights and prematurely whacking citizens. They concluded that this use of force was excessive in 57 percent of the incidents they reviewed, and in many of those cases the violence reached unconstitutional levels.

The Seattle Police Department has called into question the accuracy of these findings, but its argument is undercut by its own leniency. In more than 1,200 internal reviews of officer conduct over a roughly two-year period, the department concluded that only five instances merited further review. It doesn’t help that officers were caught on video roughing up a robbery suspect who turned out to be an innocent bystander. One of the officers is heard to say that he intended to beat “the Mexican piss out of you, homie.”

The Justice Department is insisting that Seattle undertake extensive reforms, ramp up supervision and training of a police force with many inexperienced officers, and accept a federal monitor to ensure follow-through. Seattle’s mayor is complaining about the remedies and the independent overseer, which undermines the city’s sincerity in rehabilitating its police force.

The lesson, again, is obvious. It takes a third party to reach the truth and to ensure that lessons have been learned. Once you’ve called them in, you must live with the results. Litigating the outcome merely deepens suspicion because it draws on the same overly defensive instincts that get cities into trouble in the first place.

Spokane, take note.

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