Internal affairs investigators for the Spokane Police Department have sided with officers accused of brutality and excessive force in every single complaint filed by citizens over the past five years, a statistic that troubles several community leaders, including the city’s new top cop.
Longtime brass within the police force, however, say the community needs to look beyond statistics alone and consider that the Spokane department does a better job of training and weeding out potential problem officers early in the recruiting process.
New Director of Law Enforcement Frank Straub brings 12 years of experience investigating allegations of misconduct by federal and state police officers. He said he’s keeping an open mind but the fact that Spokane police found no problem with all 492 uses of force from 2007 to 2011 raises serious questions.
“I don’t know the specific cases, but that suggests there are other issues that need to be addressed,” he said. “My first priority is not to go back and do retroactive investigations. But what I can tell you is that when those cases come to my desk, they will get a very thorough investigation.”
The Spokane Police Department’s use-of-force practices have come under increasing scrutiny as evidence was trucked out leading up to and during the trial that resulted in the conviction of former Officer Karl F. Thompson Jr. for using excessive force and lying to investigators about his deadly confrontation with Otto Zehm in 2006.
The case sparked public outcry, and restoring the public’s trust in the Police Department became a key campaign issue during David Condon’s successful race to unseat Mayor Mary Verner last year. It also prompted city officials to empanel a Use of Force Commission to look at every aspect of how the department investigates those types of cases.
The Use of Force Commission’s final report is expected to be released soon.
At a presentation to that board earlier this year, SPD Maj. Frank Scalise said 2006 was the last time a police officer was found by department officials to have used excessive force.
In that case, one officer reported that another struck a suspect after he was already handcuffed. The officer who struck the handcuffed suspect was later fired.
Following a string of incidents in Seattle, U.S. Justice Department officials initiated a civil investigation into the Seattle Police Department and found that 20 percent of all of its use-of-force reports included “unnecessary or excessive” force that the police department previously ruled were justified.
While Condon and Straub have indicated they welcome a similar review in Spokane, Scalise and Interim Chief Scott Stephens both believe that federal officials would not come up with similar findings here in Spokane.
“The only concern I have is that we are doing a complete review process,” Stephens said. “I don’t want to say our officers are perfect, but in general they tend to use less force than the law authorizes them to use.”
City Police Ombudsman Tim Burns has watched internal reviews since 2009. Only once has he voiced concern with an internal report. But if he has a criticism, he said it would come under the legal standard police officials use to determine fault.
Burns explained that it appears Spokane police officials use the criminal legal standard of beyond a reasonable doubt “when administrative findings are more in line with a preponderance (or just more than 50 percent) of the evidence,” Burns said. “I think that might be a factor.”
Stephens counters that investigators need something more substantial than a preponderance of evidence to determine fault, especially when the finding will end up in an officer’s personnel file.
“I do not believe we review using the beyond a reasonable doubt standard. I think the standard we want to use is clear and convincing evidence,” he said. “You want to make sure the complaint is sustained and accurate, especially if it is one that results in severe discipline. You need a bit more than preponderance.”
Straub said he spent 12 years of his career investigating alleged misconduct by federal and state officers.
“The one thing that we will not tolerate is misconduct, corruption and excessive use of force. Zero tolerance,” he said. “We will be transparent, and we will investigate those cases.”
Of the 492 use-of-force reports, some 60 also generated excessive force complaints – which brought an even more extensive layer of review. But none of those complaints was found to be warranted.
Straub said those numbers are potentially “a warning sign,” but added, “with 12 years of experience in this area, when I take a look at it, I’ll have a pretty good idea about what is going on.”
Scalise said he’s not troubled by the numbers because he knows how stringently the department screens candidates and trains those who are hired. He said if anything, officers tend to use less force than would otherwise be warranted.
“We live in a very scrutinized environment. Officers are reluctant to use force, but when they do, they use only that which is needed … to effect a lawful arrest,” he said. “They know walking into every situation that everything they do will be subject to public scrutiny, even if no complaint is filed.”
Like Stephens, Scalise acknowledged that the department is not perfect. But he is confident that internal procedures are working.
“Police officers are trained to make a decision in a microsecond, in a dynamic environment that is dangerous, that other people get months and years to evaluate,” Scalise said. “If an independent agency comes in and reviews those use-of-force reports, I’m confident they will make the same finding our review process found.”