September 25, 2012 in Editorial, Opinion

Editorial: Use-of-force standard clearly needs re-thinking


The Spokesman-Review Editorial Board

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Of the 492 officer-reported cases involving the use of force between 2007 and 2011, the Spokane Police Department has determined that in none did they use excessive force. Sixty complaints from the public were filed. Officers were exonerated every time.

Sounds like a department that would have no qualms about implementing body cameras and would welcome independent investigations from the ombudsman.

So, let’s get on with those changes. A skeptical public awaits action.

That perfect record is impressive until you realize that the standard of evidence the department used wouldn’t have merited a finding of fault against Officer Karl F. Thompson Jr. either. In 2006, he began clubbing Otto Zehm just seconds after confronting him at a convenience market. Many interesting tales were spun by the department about that incident. Some of them were false. The department defended Thompson’s actions, and those of other officers on the scene. The prosecutor’s office chose not to bring charges.

In any event, Thompson was convicted by a jury of excessive use of force and lying to federal prosecutors. The U.S. Justice Department noted “an extensive cover up” and “a violent abuse of power.” As Thompson was led out of the courtroom, nearly 50 officers saluted him.

So the standard of determining whether force was excessive played a role in compiling that “perfect” record. Ombudsman Tim Burns noted that the department appears to be using the criminal standard. To this day, many people in the department do not believe Thompson’s act rose to that level.

A lesser standard ought to be used, because it shows that while officers may not technically break a law, the department has a use-of-force policy that requires greater restraint than that. The standard ought to be necessity, not legality. The relevant question in these cases ought to be “was it necessary?” Not, “was it criminal?”

Again, the response of key department officials indicates that this shouldn’t be a problem. A federal review unearthed unnecessary or excessive use of force in 20 percent of cases the Seattle Police Department had cleared. Interim Spokane Police Chief Scott Stephens and Maj. Frank Scalise are confident that a federal review would not turn up a negative finding.

“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,” Stephens said.

Terrific. Then there ought to be no delay when the Use of Force Commission releases its recommendations, which are expected soon. Plus, the body cameras and the independent ombudsman investigations would only confirm what we’re being told.

That confirmation is vital, because the department’s credibility has suffered. Plus, new Director of Law Enforcement Frank Straub says that 492-0 record raises questions.

This skepticism is warranted. Spokane’s police force ought to concede that point and rally behind reforms. “Trust us” won’t work anymore, but having the confidence to be more transparent would.

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