June 29, 2012 in City

Investigative changes coming

City crafting new approach to police complaints
By The Spokesman-Review

The new legal adviser for Spokane’s police force told the Use of Force Commission on Thursday that changes are under way in how the city deals with allegations of misconduct.

In particular, she said, new City Attorney Nancy Isserlis has changed procedures in the city attorney’s office to prevent conflicts of interest when representing city employees and to ensure the city attorneys stay out of criminal investigations of its own employees.

Federal authorities accused the city attorneys of creating conflicts of interest when defending the city against a lawsuit from the family of Otto Zehm, a Spokane man who died in police custody in 2006 after he was beaten, hog-tied and shocked by police. U.S. attorneys also accused the city of interfering in the federal criminal investigation of the first responding officer, Karl F. Thompson Jr., who was convicted last year of violating Zehm’s civil rights and lying to investigators.

“We’re looking at it as a new way of thinking,” said Spokane Police Adviser Mary Muramutsu, when asked about the kind of “firewalls” the city attorney’s office has crafted to prevent conflicts.

Citing ongoing issues with the Thompson criminal case and a few technicalities to complete in the recent settlement between the city and Zehm family, Isserlis told the commission that she could not answer some specifics about the city’s handling of the Zehm case.

Earlier this year, Isserlis fired Muramutsu’s predecessor, Assistant City Attorney Rocky Treppiedi. Unlike him, Muramutsu said, she will play no role in defending the city from specific litigation. She will be more focused on crafting policies that help prevent litigation.

The Use of Force Commission, the group formed to examine police policies and procedures in the aftermath of Thompson’s conviction, held its last scheduled meeting on Thursday.

The group’s chairman, former Gonzaga Law School dean Earl “Marty” Martin, said commissioners will hold member-only conference calls and meetings to craft a list of recommendations to the Police Department, City Council and Mayor David Condon. He said he hopes to have a draft report ready in September and to hold a public hearing before making the recommendations final. The group has hired two consultants that haven’t completed their work, he said.

Thursday’s meeting focused on the city’s legal department and police department accreditation.

Mike Painter, director of professional services for the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs, reviewed how the police department could become accredited by the association or by the Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies. Painter said 56 agencies, including the Spokane County Sheriff’s Office and Cheney Police Department, are accredited by the association. About 10 agencies in Washington, including the Washington State Patrol, are accredited by CALEA. Both organizations set hundreds of standards that must be met for a department to stay accredited, he said.

He said many police unions are uncomfortable with accreditation but that some departments have won them over by offering incentives, such as 1 percent pay boosts for maintaining accreditation.

“There is work by everybody to establish accreditation and to maintain accreditation,” Painter said. “I’m certain that Spokane is ready. I have no idea if they’re willing.”

Later, Muramutsu said city leaders are interested in accrediting the department.

“Accreditation is crucial. It’s key,” she said.

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